Fighters from Libya’s new regime seized the police headquarters in the center of Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown, Sirte, on Tuesday as they moved in for the kill against the strongman’s remaining diehards.
National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters were also gearing for a fresh onslaught on the desert town of Bani Walid, another remaining bastion of forces loyal to the ousted dictator.
In Sirte, jubilant NTC combatants celebrated the takeover of the strategic police building, which they found to be deserted. They ransacked the complex and destroyed posters of the fugitive Qaddafi that they found inside.
The building’s rooftop offers a panoramic view of the whole city, with the seaside 300 to 400m to the north and the massive Ouagadougou conference center, captured on Sunday, several kilometers to the south.
In contrast to Monday, when NTC forces were pounded with rockets and gunfire as they battled Qaddafi loyalists street by street, they met no resistance on Tuesday as they edged into the city center.
An advance force of about 30 fighters checked each house as they moved forward from the city’s east, kicking in doors and covering each other against possible snipers hidden on rooftops.
Clothing abandoned by soldiers and remains of meals were found in some buildings.
The fighters became more cautious once they reached the city center, sticking to its edges for fear that snipers were lying in wait.
Fighters celebrated by honking the horns of their vehicles and firing into the air, but their jubilation ended abruptly when one apparently shot himself in the throat accidentally and died on the spot.
Early afternoon, fighting erupted southwest of the main square, a vast esplanade that extends from the base of the police building.
A reporter with NTC forces approaching the sea from the south reported a massive firefight on the edge of a park involving several hundred fighters and dozens of pickups with anti-aircraft guns.
“The Qaddafi fire is coming from three or four tall buildings. We are hitting them hard,” one fighter said.
Some fire was being returned, mostly from snipers, with the occasional rocket-propelled grenade.
The fighters were later buoyed by a two-hour visit from NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil, and said he visited the one-time showpiece Ouagadougou conference center, a major objective that was seized on Sunday.
Medics at a field hospital in western Sirte reported five killed and 42 wounded on Tuesday, while medics in the east reported 11 dead — including six Qaddafi loyalists — and 52 wounded.
The NTC forces had besieged Sirte from Sept. 15 before launching on Friday what they termed a “final assault” that has seen nearly 80 of their number killed and hundreds wounded, according to medics.
Wissam bin Ahmid, commander of NTC forces on Sirte’s eastern front, said early on Tuesday his fighters were close to overrunning the entire city but still feared for the safety of many civilians.
“There are still some snipers. But our main worry are the families still in the city who are too afraid to leave their houses as the snipers are using them as firing posts,” he said.
Yusef Sultan, a man in his 40s, was hit by a bullet in the leg as he tried to flee in a car.
“The Qaddafi forces prevented us from leaving, slashing the tyres of cars in garages and forcing us to turn back,” he said.
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