Libya forces battle for Sirte

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Revolutionary fighters today attacked a convention centre in the centre of Sirte that forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi turned into their main base, in what commanders said was a final offensive to crush resistance in the city after weeks of siege.

The forces of Libya's new rulers were pushing into the Mediterranean coastal city from the west, east and south in heavy fighting, trying to squeeze Gaddafi loyalists into a smaller and smaller perimeter.

The two sides battered each other with rockets, mortars and tanks, as Gaddafi snipers fired down on fighters advancing through housing complexes .

At least eight revolutionary fighters were killed and 125 were wounded, doctors said.

Ambulances sped down Sirte's main avenue to a field hospital set up in an abandoned villa five miles from the centre.

Doctors said a senior commander, Ali Saeh of the Free Libya Brigade, was injured, shot twice by a sniper as he led fighters through loyalist forces in a residential area.

Sirte, Gaddafi's home city, is considered the most crucial of the cities and areas that remain in the hands of supporters of the former Libyan leader, a month after revolutionaries swept into Tripoli and ousted him from power.

Leaders of the interim government have said that once Sirte falls they can start a timetable for elections.

Sirte is key to the physical unity of the country, since it lies roughly in the centre of the coastal plain where the majority of Libya's 6.5 million people live, blocking the easiest routes between east and west.

Gaddafi loyalists, however, still control another major city, Bani Walid, in the central mountains, and Sabha deep in the deserts of the south.

Revolutionary fighters have been besieging Sirte for three weeks, facing gruelling resistance as they inched their way in, let residents flee and simultaneously moved to encircle the city before the final assault.

Gaddafi's loyalists have been barricaded into the Ouagadougou Centre, a grandiose conference hall that Gaddafi built in the city to host international summits. From there they have been able to dominate the defence of surrounding residential areas.

Deputy Defence Minister Fawzi Bukatif said today that revolutionary forces were poised to enter the city from all fronts in what he called a final attack on Sirte.

Revolutionary fighters launched an assault on the convention centre in the morning, said Altaib Aleroebi, who commanded fighters who led the attack.

Backed by rocket and tank fire, they pushed into the city, facing heavy machine gun and sniper fire, he said. The fighters drove loyalists back from a wall near the Ouagadougou Centre, he said.

Fighting was also going on near Green Square, the public plaza at the centre of Sirte, between the convention centre and the sea, commanders said.