SIRTE (Reuters) - Civilians fled Sirte on Friday as interim government forces pounded the coastal city in an effort to dislodge fighters loyal to ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The prolonged battle for Gaddafi's hometown, besieged from three fronts, has raised concern for civilians trapped inside the city of about 100,000 people, with each side accusing the other of endangering them.
Cars streamed out of Sirte from the early hours and into the afternoon. Shelling and tank fire continued from both sides on the eastern and western fronts, black smoke rose from the centre of town and NATO planes flew overhead.
A Reuters team on the edge of Sirte heard five huge explosions just before sundown. It was not immediately clear what had caused the explosions.
Fighting was particularly heavy near a roundabout on the eastern outskirts of the city, where NTC forces have been pinned down by sniper and artillery fire for five days, Reuters journalists at the scene said.
Some fighters again fled the frontline under the fire.
"It's difficult, difficult," said anti-Gaddafi fighter Rami Moftah. "You know, with the snipers. You can't find them. Yesterday there was no ammunition. It was finished. I swear to God. If the Gaddafi people knew that they would have come and taken Sirte from us."
Several residents told Reuters they were leaving Sirte because they had not eaten for days.
"I am not scared. I am hungry," said Ghazi Abdul-Wahab, a Syrian who has lived in the town for 40 years, patting his stomach.
Abdul-Wahab said he had been sleeping in the streets with his family after a NATO airstrike hit a building next to his house, making him fear his home could also be struck.
"People inside are scared about their houses. People want to protect their houses," he said, adding that some locals may fight because they have heard the NTC wants to kill them.
"IS THIS HOW WE'RE SUPPOSED TO DIE?"
Some residents said they had paid up to $800 for the fuel to leave the city because it was in short supply. Others said pasta and flour were now changing hands for large sums of money.
Doctors at a field hospital near the eastern front line said an elderly woman died from malnutrition on Friday morning and they had seen other cases.
A man with a shrapnel wound to his left arm said the hospital in Sirte had no power and few supplies. A doctor had tried to patch up his wound by the light of a mobile phone.
"I was injured in my garden at 1 p.m. but I stayed home until the evening because of the heavy fire," Mohammed Abudullah said at a field hospital outside the city.
Gaddafi loyalists and some civilians were blaming NATO air strikes and shelling by the forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) for killing civilians.
NATO and the NTC deny that. They and some other civilians coming out of the town say pro-Gaddafi fighters are executing people they believe to be NTC sympathisers.
"It is not the Gaddafi people and not you people," one elderly man shouted, gesturing towards NTC fighters at a checkpoint as he left the city.
"It's the French planes that are hitting us night and day. They knocked the roof off our house. Is this how we're supposed to die?"
Ahmad Mohammed Yahya told Reuters street fighting was erupting in the town most nights and that pro-Gaddafi fighters were aggressively recruiting local people.
"Sometimes they offer to give you a weapon," he said. "And sometimes they take people and force them to fight."
The NTC is under pressure to strike a balance between a prolonged fight that would delay its efforts to govern and a quick victory which, if too bloody, could worsen regional divisions and embarrass the fledgling government and its foreign backers.
Aid agencies said this week a humanitarian disaster loomed in Sirte amid rising casualties and shrinking supplies of water, electricity and food.
Libya's interim government has asked the United Nations for fuel for ambulances to evacuate its wounded fighters from Sirte, a U.N. source in Libya said on Thursday.
The U.N. is sending trucks of drinking water for the civilians crammed into vehicles on the road from Sirte, heading either towards Benghazi to the east or Misrata to the west, he added.
But fighting around the city and continuing insecurity around Bani Walid, the other loyalist hold-out, are preventing the world body from deploying aid workers inside, he said.
"There are two places we'd really like access to, Sirte and Bani Walid, because of concern on the impact of conflict on the civilian population," the U.N. source in Tripoli, speaking by telephone on condition of anonymity, told Reuters in Geneva.
The NTC says efforts to form a new interim government have been suspended until after the capture of Sirte and Bani Walid.
There has been speculation that divisions are preventing the formation of a more inclusive interim government.
More than a month after NTC fighters captured Tripoli, Gaddafi remains on the run, trying to rally resistance to those who ended his 42-year rule.
The military chief of Libya's new interim government attended a meeting on Friday between Tuareg tribesmen and local Arabs in the southwestern town of Ghadames aimed at patching up differences that have recently spilt over into violence.
The Saharan trading town close to the Algerian border drew international attention this week when an NTC official said Gaddafi was believed to be hiding nearby.
(Additional reporting by Mahdi Talat in Sirte, William MacLean in Tripoli, Ali Shuaib in Ghademes and Emad Omar in Benghazi; Writing by Barry Malone; Editing by Sophie Hares)