Fighters for Libya’s interim rulers entered former leader Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown Sirte on Saturday in a surprise assault that NATO said it backed to halt brutal acts by followers of the ousted regime.
National Transitional Council (NTC) chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil said an interim government would be announced this week and that the new authorities had control over Qaddafi’s internationally “banned weapons.”
Misrata military council spokesman Abdel Ibrahim said seven NTC fighters were killed and 145 injured in what appeared to have been a pincer movement launched from the south and east.
Using tanks and pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, the NTC forces cleared away roadblocks set up by Qaddafi forces and drove toward the city center before putting up their own defenses in advanced positions.
On a beach road surrounded by craters and pockmarked buildings, a 106mm anti-tank cannon repeatedly pounded Qaddafi positions, backed by a barrage of mortars and multiple rocket-launchers.
“We are pushing them back” after a “surprise” order to attack issued by the NTC’s military top brass, commander Mohammed al-Aswawi said in a radio truck monitoring units on the front.
“First we get the families out, and then the order is to attack and free Sirte,” he said.
“There is also an advance from the south,” he added, as the Misrata Military Council said that front was being reinforced by NTC fighters who had taken part in “the liberation of al-Jafra.”
Frontline fighters in Sirte are convinced that one of Qaddafi’s sons, Mutassim, is holed up in the city’s southern outskirts.
“Mutassim is in there. We hear him on the radio giving orders,” NTC operations commander Osama Muttawa Swehly said on Saturday.
As the battle raged into the evening, another commander, Hassan Tarhar Zaluk, said NTC forces would have to resume the fight for Sirte yesterday.
“We’re going to stop for the evening. There’s no light in there. We’ll start again tomorrow [yesterday],” he said.
NTC fighters also came under heavy fire as they advanced inside Sirte’s eastern gates, it was reported.
“Our troops went 7km inside through the eastern gate and there were sporadic to sometimes heavy clashes with Qaddafi’s forces,” said commander Mohammed al-Marimi of the Fakriddin Sallabi Brigade.
The assault was launched after reports of a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the city of about 75,000 inhabitants.
NATO forces struck at Qaddafi forces after reports they had moved against civilians there, endangering “hundreds of families,” a statement from the alliance said.
“Among the reports emerging from Sirte are executions, hostage-taking and the calculated targeting of individuals, families and communities within the city,” it added.
Heavy fighting also raged in Bani Walid, the only other remaining pro-Qaddafi bastion. Medics reported a total of 30 NTC troops killed so far on that front.
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