Gaddafi forces respond with sniper fire and mortars as Libya's revolutionary fighters advance into Sirte

 

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Hundreds of revolutionary fighters pushed into Muammar Gaddafi's home town of Sirte yesterday in the first significant assault in about a week as Libya's new rulers try to rout remaining loyalists. Explosions rocked the city and smoke rose into the sky as Gaddafi's forces met the offensive with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

Provisional government fighters occupied a roundabout in the coastal city before advancing to a broadcasting station on a major boulevard. Many were wounded by hand grenades and snipers firing from tall buildings, according to witnesses returning from the front lines.

Moftah Mohammed, a 28-year-old fighter who brought four of his wounded friends to a field hospital on the western edge of the city, described heavy gunfire from houses and fierce street battles. He said his friends were wounded by snipers who shot them as they drove forward to fire a rocket-propelled grenade. Attackers then threw hand grenades at two other revolutionary fighters who went to pull the wounded from the car.

Anti-Gaddafi forces tried to push into the city last weekend but were driven back by fierce rocket and gunfire, with at least 25 killed and dozens wounded. They pulled back to regroup and let civilians leave the area.

More than 1,300 families have left the city in the past week. A few dozen waiting at a checkpoint outside the city yesterday described rapidly deteriorating conditions, with entire families hiding in basements and children suffering from diarrhoea because clean water is scarce. The former rebels had said they would wait until civilians could escape, but Mohammed al-Sugatri, one of the brigade commanders, said they decided to advance because several families living in Sirte who are originally from the anti-Gaddafi city of Misrata were in danger. "There are lots of people from Misrata who are stuck in the city living in basements. They have no food or water and many of their children are sick so we had no choice but to attack," he said.

The two sides have been in a deadlock since former rebels tried to advance on the city a week ago. They are still struggling to overcome Gaddafi's remaining strongholds in the centre and the south more than a month after they pushed Gaddafi from power.

In Tripoli, a series of explosions went off at a warehouse for military vehicles near the harbour Saturday afternoon and heavy black smoke poured out of the facility. So far, since the revolutionaries took over in early August, there have been no significant attacks in the capital.

The Transitional National Council, which led the rebellion, is now formally ruling Libya, though it is still working to establish its authority. Yesterday, the council's chief, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, said that the council will announce a new interim government in the coming week.

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