Rebels attack Muammar Gaddafi home town

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The Independent Online

Libyan revolutionary fighters struggled to expand the offensive into Muammar Gaddafi's home town today with street-by-street battles and commanders seeking to break open a new front against loyalist forces fiercely defending the most symbolic stronghold remaining from the shattered regime.

The fresh assaults on the seaside city of Sirte contrasted with a stalemate in the mountain enclave of Bani Walid where demoralised anti-Gaddafi forces tried to regroup after being beaten back by loyalist snipers and gunners holding strategic high ground.

Sirte, however, remains the big prize for both sides.

Anti-Gaddafi fighters backed by heavy machine guns and rockets tried to push through crowded residential areas in the city - on Libya's central Mediterranean coast - but were met with a rain of gunfire and mortars.

A field hospital set up outside Sirte at a gas station filled with wounded revolutionary militiamen, including those on a convoy hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

In earlier battles, Gaddafi's gunmen fired from mosque minarets and high-rise buildings. In the streets, the two sides battered each other with high-calibre machine guns, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades.

"There is no full control over Sirte," said Hassan Dourai, Sirte representative in the new government's interim government.

He said fighters reported seeing one of Gaddafi's sons, Muatassim, shortly before the offensives began yesterday, but he has not been spotted since the battles intensified.

The whereabouts of Gaddafi and several of his sons remain unknown. Other family members have fled to neighbouring Algeria and Niger.

While battles raged, anti-Gaddafi commanders said they were close to reaching a surrender accord with leaders of the Harawa region, about 50 miles (80km) east of Sirte. If the Harawa deal is reached, it would open a new pathway into Sirte for revolutionary forces.

But Gaddafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, claimed loyalists are in no danger of losing the city.

"We have the ability to continue this resistance for months," he said yesterday in a phone call to Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become the mouthpiece for the former regime.

The conditions inside Sirte, meanwhile, grow increasingly dire for those caught in the crossfire.

Nouri Abu Bakr, a 42-year-old teacher fleeing the city, said there is no electricity or medicine and food supplies are nearly exhausted.

"Gaddafi gave all the people weapons, but those fighting are the Gaddafi brigade of loyalists," he said.

The same types of hardline forces are apparently leading the defence of Bani Walid, about 90 miles (140km) south-east of the capital, Tripoli.

The fighters withdrew yesterday after facing withering sniper fire and shelling from loyalists units holding key positions above the valley entrance to the town.

There were no signs today that anti-Gaddafi forces planned a swift counter punch.

"This may be the worst front Libya will see," said fighter Osama Al-Fassi, who joined other former rebels gathered at a feed factory where they drank coffee and took target practice at plastic bottles. "I don't think we will have orders to move in today."

Meanwhile, more families fled the town. At least a dozen cars streamed out during the lull in the combat.

A 50-year-old civil servant leaving with his family, Ismail Mohammed, described the pro-Gaddafi forces as "too strong" inside Bani Walid and suggested a generational divide between young people strongly behind the uprising and older Libyans often more cautious about whether the revolutionary forces can bring stability.

"The youth wanted this revolution and sometimes you can't control your own son," he said.

The tough defence of Bani Walid and Sirte displayed the firepower and resolve of the Gaddafi followers and indicated that Libya's new rulers may not easily break the back of regime hold-outs. It also raised fears that the country could face a protracted insurgency of the sort that has played out in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The loyalists still hold a swathe of Libya along the central coast and into the southern deserts more than three weeks after revolutionary fighters swept into Tripoli and drove out Gaddafi.

In Libya's southern desert, hundreds of former rebels also have massed deep in the southern desert and were trying to negotiate with villagers in a pro-Gaddafi area to surrender peacefully.

Hundreds of revolutionary forces left the captured Bani Jalloud air base and rolled through villages where they reached truces. Along the route, crowds cheered their arrival and flashed V-for-victory signs.

Each step brought them closer to the loyalist city of Sabha, the main southern urban centre about 400 miles (650km) south of Tripoli.

Colonel Bashir Awidat, a revolutionary commander, said they seek to secure the surrounding hinterlands moving against Sabha. He added that the villagers had been isolated and believed Gaddafi's propaganda.

"They think that we'll raid their houses and rob them. The media coverage here has been bad for 42 years and it has trained people to think a certain way, and that will take time to change," he told The Associated Press at the captured air base.

The new leadership has been gaining international support in its campaign to root out the rest of Gaddafi's regime and establish authority.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan all visited Tripoli this week.

The UN General Assembly also voted yesterday to give Libya's seat in the world body to the National Transitional Council, which is the closest thing the oil-rich North African nation has to a government.

The vote means that a senior council official will be able to join world leaders and speak for Libya at next week's ministerial session of the General Assembly, and participate in meetings.

Also yesterday, the UN Security Council approved a new UN mission in Libya and the unfreezing of assets of two major oil companies. It also lifted a ban on flights by Libyan aircraft and modified an arms embargo.