Fighters from Libya’s new regime retreated under heavy fire from forces loyal to former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in his hometown of Sirte yesterday as their leaders backtracked from an announcement they had captured one of his sons.
The advancing fighters, who had been hoping to mop up the last pockets of resistance in two residential neighborhoods in the northwest of the city, withdrew at least 2km to the central police headquarters they captured, a correspondent reported.
Before the reverse, a field commander said the fighters were trying to avoid using heavy weaponry against residential neighborhoods to avoid civilian casualties.
Sirte is a key goal for Libya’s new leaders who have said they will not proclaim the country liberated and begin preparing for the transition to an elected government until the city has fallen.
The new regime began its siege of Sirte on Sept. 15 before launching what it termed a “final assault” on Friday last week that has seen at least 91 of its troops killed and hundreds wounded, medics said.
A top adviser to National Transitional Council (NTC) chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil, meanwhile, backtracked on his announcement that new regime forces had captured Qaddafi’s son and former Libyan national security chief Mutassim in Sirte, after it was denied by military commanders in the city.
“There was some confusion about the reports of Mutassim’s capture,” Abdelkarim Bizama said. “As soon as we have -confirmation, there will be an official -announcement of his arrest.”
Late yesterday, Bizama had announced: “Mutassim Qaddafi was captured at Sirte and was transferred to Benghazi,” Libya’s second-largest city where significant parts of the new leadership remain based.
The announcement sparked celebratory gunfire in both Tripoli and the anti-Qaddafi stronghold of Misrata.
New regime fighters said they had captured the Qaddafi regime’s top cleric Khaled Tantoosh as he attempted to flee Sirte on Wednesday with his beard shaved off to disguise his appearance.
“We captured him yesterday morning,” said fighter Abdu Salam, who said he stopped the cleric’s vehicle with four comrades on the coast road west out of Sirte.
NATO said its aircraft hit two military vehicles in Sirte on Wednesday and one more in the other remaining bastion of Qaddafi forces — the desert oasis of Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli.
NTC Oil and Finance Minister Ali Tarhuni said Libya would not award any further oil contracts until an elected government had been formed.
“The only government that can give new concessions in oil is an elected government, and that would be after we have a constitution,” he said.
Libya’s oil production, which collapsed following the uprising in February, is expected to rise from current levels of about 400,000 barrels a day, to nearly 1 million by April next year, said Nuri Berruien, president of the state-run National Oil Corp.