Step by step, fighters root out loyalists in Gaddafi’s stronghold

Whereabouts of the Libyan dictator still unknown as revolutionaries tighten their grip on Sirte

Provisional government fighters appeared to have Gaddafi forces pinned down last night in the centre of Sirte, the last Libyan city still holding out against the rebel army. "Sirte is finished!", shouted fighters in their pick-up trucks on the eastern edge of the city on Saturday afternoon, and Abu Abdul Rahman, one of the commanders on the eastern side of the city, said: "Step by step, room by room, house by house, the game is over for Gaddafi."

The anti-Gaddafi forces began a major assault on the besieged city at dawn on Friday and heavy fighting continued into Saturday evening. Fighters on the east and western edges of the city are pushing forward at five separate places in a chaotic but sustained advance. National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters now control many areas on the edges of Sirte and are holding a tightening perimeter around the city as the advance parties push further in.

Sirte has proven difficult to capture. An unknown number of pro-Gaddafi forces are holed up in high-rise buildings at the centre of the city, from where they shoot at approaching fighters and launch rockets and mortar fire.

"There is a very vicious battle now in Sirte," NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil told reporters in Tripoli, where he was meeting defence ministers from Britain and Italy. "Today our fighters are dealing with the snipers that are taking positions and hiding in the city of Sirte."

Taking Sirte would bring Libya's new rulers closer to their goal of establishing control of the entire country almost two months after they seized the capital, but they are also under pressure to spare the civilians trapped inside.

The NTC forces have thrust Gaddafi loyalists back from defensive positions well outside Sirte, and are now contesting control of the centre of the Mediterranean coastal city in often chaotic battles. A prolonged struggle to capture the few remaining pro-Gaddafi loyalists has sidetracked NTC efforts to set up effective government over the sprawling North African country and rebuild the oil production vital to its economy.

The revolutionary force grouped around Sirte is a motley mix of defected army units, inexperienced volunteer militias and brigades hardened by their experience during the siege of Misrata.

One of these groups pushing forward on Saturday was the Ali Hassan Jabr brigade, a few dozen men from cities in the east of the country. The men gathered a mile from the large complex of buildings housing the city's university, from where they blasted at the city with heavy artillery. At the vanguard of the fighting, a group moved on the university.

The men inched forward on foot, marking their progress by planting rebel flags on the ground they took. "We're looking for Gaddafi by foot," one said, as they edged closer, moving from house to house and then jogging through open scrubland, dodging behind sand banks as bullets from Gaddafi's snipers raised plumes of dust around them.

Several times they came under fire from their own side, caught in the crossfire as the revolutionaries' encirclement of the city tightened.

Fighters had to be restrained from firing on their own positions in bouts of unregulated enthusiasm. Anti-aircraft guns mounted in the back of pick-up trucks swerved dangerously into the line of their own side.

These men were civilians before the war. One said that he worked as a shepherd, another was a shop- keeper, a third an electrical engineer. By mid-afternoon this ragged assortment had reached the university complex and raised their flags on top of the buildings there.

Inside the university grounds they connected with a larger unit from Benghazi and steamed forward across an unfinished stadium where they were met with a crossfire of missiles from Misratan forces advancing from the west. One man sprinted down the road along the university gate wielding a sword and shouting: "Where is Gaddafi? Where is that dog?"

Where indeed. Months after his fall, the old dictator is still on the run.