Gaddafi's final bastion is overrun by rebel surge


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The Independent Online

Libyan revolutionary forces stormed through the streets of Sirte yesterday, tightening their noose on this last bastion of support for the fallen former leader, Muammar Gaddafi.

Recent days have seen the transitional government's troops surging into the coastal city, where they have met dwindling resistance from Gaddafi loyalists holed up within a rapidly-diminishing area.

Sirte, where Gaddafi was born in 1942, has been under siege since 15 September. At dawn on Friday, fighters loyal to the National Transitional Council (NTC) began what they called a "final assault". Its momentum has built steadily since then as the NTC seized landmarks on the outskirts and pushed further into residential areas at its heart.

The police headquarters fell yesterday, adding to significant gains made over the weekend when troops captured the university campus, the main hospital and a convention centre. The revolutionaries are now pushing in from the east, west and south.

In the eastern surburbs, fighters from Benghazi swarmed through street after street of abandoned villas and bullet-scarred blocks of flats. Green flags, denoting loyalty to Gaddafi, still flew from many of the rooftops. As houses were ransacked and looted, one NTC fighter donned a woman's wig as he rode a stolen bicycle through the streets.

Fighters found some civilians still living in one of the villas but allowed them to remain there. "Same same, my father, same my grandfather, no problem," shrugged Mustapha Al Imani, one of the troops.

Most of Sirte's civilians are believed to have fled, and those who fought for the old regime are also said to be trying to escape. "Gaddafi's militias are leaving Sirte," said Dr Mohammed Barassi, a medic with the units from Benghazi. On a road outside the city, fighters apprehended a group of four young men in civilian clothes who were walking away from Sirte, but said they had no identification papers.

Although the rebel fighters have clearly defeated Gaddafi's forces after almost eight months of civil war, Libya's new leaders say they will not start planning democratic elections until the last vestiges of support for the former dictator are subdued.

Victory in Sirte will not necessarily mean the end of Nato's air strikes in the country, according to the alliance's senior commander. "The fall of Sirte is an important element but, like any decision it will not be the only factor," Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, the chairman of Nato's military committee, told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

"It think it will end very quickly but I don't have a crystal ball."