Head of Libya's NTC visits battle-torn Sirte

SIRTE, Libya Tue Oct 11, 2011 10:11pm BST

1 of 3. Anti-Gaddafi fighters fire C5 rockets during clashes with pro-Gaddafi forces at the front line in Sirte October 11, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Saad Shalash

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SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Libya's interim chief paid a symbolic visit to Muammar Gaddafi's battle-torn hometown of Sirte on Tuesday, saying his forces needed two more days to capture the last major stronghold of the deposed leader.

Taking Sirte would bring Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) a big step closer to establishing control over the vast North African nation almost two months after they seized the capital Tripoli.

NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil was driven into the coastal town in the back of a truck in a convoy of about 20 cars.

Jubilant NTC fighters shouted "Martyrs, martyrs, for you, Libya!" and fired their weapons into the air in celebration in a square lying about 1.6 km (1 mile) from the front line.

"All the victories are thanks to you, my revolutionary brothers," Abdel Jalil told a crowd of some 200 fighters, some of whom pushed and shoved to try to get close to him.

"You have the support of all the members of the transitional council," he added, speaking outside the heavily damaged Ouagadougou conference hall where Gaddafi used to host international summits.

Asked by Reuters TV if Sirte was firmly under the control of NTC forces, Abdel Jalil said: "No. We need two more days."

The NTC has said it would start the process of rebuilding Libya as a democracy only after Sirte is captured.

Stiff resistance by Gaddafi fighters cornered in the centre of Sirte has kept government forces at bay. NTC forces said on Tuesday they believed Muammar Gaddafi's son Mo'tassim, his father's national security adviser, was holed up in Sirte.

"There are a few (Gaddafi-held) pockets, mainly concentrated in the 'Dollar' neighbourhood," said Colonel Mohammed Ajhseer. "According to the information we have, this is where Mo'tassim is, with another group."

The prolonged battle for Sirte, which Gaddafi had turned into a showcase second capital, has raised international concern about civilians caught up in the fighting.

As the fighting raged in the streets, terrified families were emerging from their houses and trying to leave.

NTC fighters surrounded their vehicles and searched them for weapons -- a sign of the deep mistrust in Sirte, where many people belong to Gaddafi's tribe and opposed his overthrow.

"There are explosions all the time," said one woman, who was in a white van with seven children. "There is no water. There is nothing," she said, then started crying.

TRAPPED FAMILIES

On the western outskirts of Sirte, a flat-bed truck drove out carrying about 30 people, including children clutching dolls and blankets. It was raining, and they were wet and shivering.

One of them, Abdul Menem Ahmed, from Ondurman in Sudan, said he had been working as an accountant in Libya for 14 years. "There is no food no water, no medicine," he said.

NTC forces have captured Sirte's most important landmarks, including the Ouagadougou hall, the hospital and the university.

Tuesday's fighting focussed on Omar al-Mokhtar street, a tree-lined thoroughfare in a well-heeled neighbourhood.

A Reuters reporter said NTC fighters took cover in side streets out of sight of loyalist snipers hidden in buildings further up the road. They took turns to dart out, shouting "Allahu Akbar (God is great)," fire a few shots and rush back.

Typically for what is an amateur fighting force, the NTC effort was brave but chaotic.

One thickly bearded man in a wheelchair was pushed into the main street by a comrade, fired his Kalashnikov rifle at Gaddafi loyalists, and was then pushed back to safety.

The Reuters reporter said she saw another fighter taken back into a side street bleeding heavily from a back wound after he had been firing a Soviet-designed "Dushka" heavy machinegun.

Muammar Gaddafi himself is not in Sirte, according to NTC officials coordinating the hunt for him, but is instead believed to be far to the south in the Sahara desert.

Sirte, once a fishing village, has symbolic significance because Gaddafi used it as a prop in the personality cult he built during his 42 year rule. He built opulent villas, hotels and conference halls there to host Arab and African leaders.

A commander of NATO, whose warplanes patrol the skies over Sirte and sometimes bomb Gaddafi-held targets, said the former leader's forces in the city were showing surprising resilience.

"We're all surprised by the tenacity of the pro-Gaddafi forces," General Ralph J. Jodice II was quoted as saying by the New York Times. "At this point, they might not see a way out."

(Additional reporting by Barry Malone and Joseph Logan in Tripoli; Writing by Christian Lowe and Joseph Nasr; Editing by Maria Golovnina)

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