Gaddafi's home town is a target along the rebel path to victory

If the rebels are to claim a complete victory in their battle to unseat Muammar Gaddafi and unify Libya, it's not just the streets of Tripoli they need to conquer. There is a clean and pleasant seaside city about 230 miles to the east, barely touched by the six-month uprising, where oil money and tribal ties have bought a loyalty seen in few places in the North African nation.

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It is Sirte, where Colonel Gaddafi was born and educated, a city he transformed from an inconsequential coastal outpost to a potential capital to replace Tripoli. It was in a Bedouin tent just outside the city that Colonel Gaddafi was pictured shaking hands with Tony Blair as Britain and Libya re-established ties. And, in one of the many ironies of the conflict, in Sirte in 2005, Kofi Annan, who was then the UN secretary general, established the UN Democracy Fund at an African Union summit.

Although it is relatively small, with a population of about 150,000, military units still loyal to Col Gaddafi are posted at the city, while there is an air force base outside it. It was from Sirte that regime forces fired the only two Scud missiles of the conflict, the first on 15 August and another on Monday.

Since the revolution began, Sirte has been a holy grail for the rebels advancing from the east. One of their main grievances has been the unfair distribution of oil wealth and Sirte's favourite son has rewarded his home town handsomely. On the banks of the Mediterranean, Sirte boasts a university, modern architecture, a conference centre and even a water park. Col Gaddafi has lavished attention on the two dominant tribes there, buying their loyalty.

Fighters from the east never really got close to the city – a brief advance on Sirte at the end of March was swiftly repelled. Last night, there were reports the rebels were making advances along the coast, and they claimed to have seized Ras Lanuf and killed a number of Gaddafi troops in an army convoy coming from Sirte. Pan-Arab television station Al Arabiya also reported that Gaddafi forces were shelling the oil town of Zuara near Tunisian border.

The Associated Press yesterday reported that many Sirte residents were unaware of the assault on Tripoli, with communications and power cut. Calls to Al-Tahadi University in the city were not connected. "There is no power in Sirte – we are getting in touch with the people inside only through satellite phones," Hassan al-Daroui, an opposition official, said. "We are worried that Gaddafi wants to just kill as many people as he can before his demise. He knows he is finished – now he wants to bring Sirte down with him."

There are other cities still under Col Gaddafi's control, notably Al Khums just east of Tripoli, the southern city of Sebha, and a number of tribal towns in the desert. But the symbolism of Sirte makes it a potent prize for the rebels. Analysts say a victorious opposition must try to build bridges with former Gaddafi supporters rather than embark on an orgy of revenge.

Residents in Sirte will be hoping for some forgiveness when the rebels finally come calling.

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