Libyan revolutionary forces claimed to have captured parts of a sprawling convention center that loyalists of ousted Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi have used as their main base in his hometown and were shelling the city to try to rout snipers from rooftops in their offensive aimed at crushing this key bastion of the old regime.
The inability to take Sirte, the most important remaining stronghold of Qaddafi supporters, more than six weeks after the capital fell has stalled efforts by Libya’s new leaders to set a timeline for elections and move forward with a transition to democracy.
Qaddafi supporters also hold the enclave of Bani Walid, where revolutionary forces have been stymied by a challenging terrain. However, the transitional leadership has said it will declare liberation after Sirte’s capture because that will mean it holds all of the seaports and harbors in the oil-rich Mediterranean coastal country.
Revolutionary forces began a major attack on Sirte on Friday after a three-week siege from the outskirts of the coastal city, during which they said they were giving civilians time to flee. On Saturday, fighters fired rockets into the city from the backs of pickup trucks, though visibility was severely limited by a sandstorm.
Libya’s de facto leader, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the governing National Transitional Council, said the battle for Sirte has been “ferocious,” with 15 revolutionary fighters killed and 180 wounded on Friday.
“Our fighters today are still dealing with the snipers positioned on the high buildings and we sustained heavy casualties,” he said at a joint news conference in Tripoli with Fox and Italian Secretary of Defense Ignazio La Russa.
Abdel-Basit Haroun, a revolutionary field commander, said 32 people had been killed in two days of fighting, while the military council in the nearby city of Misrata, which has sent many fighters to Sirte, reported 80 wounded.
The council said revolutionary forces were attacking houses to try to eliminate the “overwhelming hordes of snipers out there.”
Sirte, 400km southeast of Tripoli, is key to the physical unity of the nation of some 6 million people, since it lies roughly in the center of the coastal plain where most Libyans live, blocking the easiest routes between east and west.
Mohammed al-Rajali, spokesman for the brigades attacking the city from the east, said the fighters have gained control of the Ouagadougou Convention Center, an ornate complex in the city center that Qaddafi frequently used for international summits. However, they were meeting heavy resistance from villas behind the building so were focusing on firing artillery from the outskirts.
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