Revolutionary fighters make 'final push' to seize Gaddafi's home town

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Revolutionary forces in Libya launched their largest offensive yet on the city of Sirte yesterday, in what commanders called their final push to capture Muammar Gaddafi's last loyalist redoubt.

Fighters said they hoped the coastal city would fall today, ousting the pro-Gaddafi troops who have been stubbornly resisting a threeweek siege by rebel forces. Hundreds of pick-up trucks assembled at dawn on the highway that loops around Sirte. Communicating by radio and satellite phone, the units pushed forward, trying to enter the city on five fronts, firing with mortar rounds, rockets, tank fire and bullets.

The advance was met with sniper fire and more mortar rounds from loyalist troops inside the city, and many of the units found themselves pinned down.

"They hide, hit and hide, hit and hide," said Salah Al Jbou, the commander of the troops on the western side of the city, as his men came under sniper fire while they tried to advance on the Ibn Sidr hospital in the west of the city.

"No one knows what's happening," said Mohammed Sweisi, a doctor working with an ambulance on a separate section of the frontline.

Across a field where tanks and anti-aircraft guns lined up, unleashing a barrage of missiles, was the smoke-shrouded Ouagadougou centre, where Gaddafi once hosted visits from foreign leaders but which now serves as a defensive point for the loyalist troops within the city.

Scores of pick-up trucks had gathered along the walls around the gate of the complex and were driving in to bombard the building with anti-aircraft fire and missiles, before cycling back to reload ammunition.

Hundreds of men clustered around the gate, pushing forwards with Kalashnikov rifles, as sniper bullets slashed through the leaves of the trees they stood under.

By mid-afternoon yesterday, fighters had not got beyond the main gates but had blasted three separate holes in the wall. As of early evening they were still attacking.

More progress was made on the western edge of the city, where anti-Gaddafi fighters succeeded in capturing a large complex of apartments.

Inside the complex stood empty, white villas, many of them damaged by incoming fire. Civilians had clearly been living in the houses until very recently.

During the early afternoon, three carloads of civilians drove away from the complex to the main road, guarded by rebel fighters.

Sirte is one of the few places in the country which is still loyal to the toppled former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

The vast majority of its 75,000 citizens are now believed to have fled, but a small number of civilians are said to remain, along with a hardcore of pro-Gaddafi fighters.

Nato planes were overhead during the day but there were no reports of bombings.

The rebel forces were continuing their assault into yesterday evening and said they were determined to hold the ground they had taken over the course of the day.

"Any metre we get, we are not going back," said Mustafa Lamin, one of the fighters. The men with him said that they would sleep out overnight to hold the position.

Ambulances blazed up and down the coastal highway all day. By late afternoon, doctors at the field hospital on the western side of the city said that 15 had been reported dead and more than 206 injured.

Gaddafi – whose whereabouts are unknown – broke a two week-long silence on Thursday to call on Libyans to embark on a campaign of civil disobedience against the rebels' new government.

In a scratchy recording broadcast on the Syrian Arrai television station, he called for people to "go out in new million-man marches in all cities and villages and oases... Be courageous, rise up, go out in the streets," he said. "Raise the green flag in the skies ... the conditions in Libya are unbearable."