SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Snipers loyal to Muammar Gaddafi held back government forces trying to capture his hometown on Thursday and the deposed leader warned the heads of the developing world who have recognised Libya’s new rulers that they would face a similar fate to his own.
Hiding in a mosque and a building that was once Gaddafi’s favourite venue for international summits, loyalists blocked the advance of government forces, making forecasts of a quick end to the battle for Sirte look premature.
Thousands of civilians in the town of Sirte are caught up in the fighting. Red Cross workers who were able to reach the town’s hospital described patients sheltering from the gunfire in the corridors and a lack of staff to treat them.
Taking Sirte is of huge symbolic importance to Libya’s new rulers, and until it is captured they are putting on hold plans to start rebuilding the oil-producing North African state.
Once a sleepy fishing town and Gaddafi’s birthplace, Sirte was transformed by the former Libyan leader into the country’s second capital.
Libya’s parliament often sat in Sirte and summit meetings were staged in a marble-clad conference centre in the south of the Mediterranean coastal city, from where fighters loyal to him fired on the attacking forces on Thursday.
Commanders with the National Transitional Council (NTC) have predicted they will have Sirte, which has a population of 75,000, under their full control by the weekend.
They pledged that units on Sirte’s outskirts would be brought into the fight on Friday in a coordinated offensive.
An audio recording of Gaddafi obtained by Reuters on Thursday from Syria-based Arrai television was the first sign of life from him since September 20, when the same station last aired a speech by him.
“If the power of (international) fleets give legitimacy, then let the rulers in the Third World be ready,” Gaddafi said in an apparent reference to NATO’s support for NTC forces.
“To those who recognise this council, be ready for the creation of transitional councils imposed by the power of fleets to replace you one by one from now on,” said Gaddafi, who was in power for 42 years.
De facto Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril said that Gaddafi was hiding in southern Libya under the protection of tribes, crossing occasionally into Niger, and government forces expected to pinpoint his whereabouts soon.
“Security is the most important thing for him. To specify where he is exactly even for ten hours is very difficult. I hope within the coming days we will be able to confirm where he is located exactly,” Jibril said in on a visit to Baghdad where he discussed renewing Libyan diplomatic ties with Iraq.
Gaddafi loyalists who pulled back to Sirte when they lost control of other cities are putting up fierce resistance. They have nowhere else to go.
“A lot of them are veterans, the hard-core fanatics. There’s also mercenaries (and) people fiercely loyal to Gaddafi,” said Matthew Van Dyke, an American who is fighting with the anti-Gaddafi forces.
“They are not going to give up,” said Van Dyke, who said he came to Libya seven months ago to visit friends, was arrested by Gaddafi forces, and joined the fighting on his release.
“It’s going to take a while. (Because of) the snipers, we are going to take a lot of casualties.”
Anti-Gaddafi fighters on Thursday had advanced just over one kilometre (miles) into Sirte from the luxury hotel on the Mediterranean shore that had earlier marked the front line.
They were hunkered down in a neighbourhood of villas and residential blocks from where they were using machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades to try to capture loyalist positions.
They set up firing positions, fortified with sandbags, next to the apartment block windows. But they were drawing heavy fire: buildings were riddled with bullets and their balconies had been partially demolished by heavy-calibre rounds.
Anti-Gaddafi fighters used binoculars to watch for muzzle flashes from loyalist sniper rifles.
They said the snipers were positioned in the minaret of a nearby mosque and in the Ouagadougou conference hall.
That is the building where Gaddafi, often decked out in elaborate traditional dress, would host summits of African and Arab heads of state.
An NTC defence spokesman quoted by Al Jazeera television said one of Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Mo’attassem, had left Sirte and fled south.
The street-by-street fighting was taking place on the northeastern corner of Sirte while anti-Gaddafi forces on the western side of the city held back.
Commanders there were bringing up tanks in preparation for what they said would be a coordinated assault on both fronts.
With the NTC focus on Sirte, Libya has been left in a political limbo. It has only a makeshift government and in Tripoli rival armed militias are jockeying for power.
An NTC spokesman said council chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil would travel to Tripoli on Saturday to handle the “delicate situation” in the capital.
The battle for Sirte has exacted a high cost for civilians. They have been trapped, with dwindling supplies of food and water and no proper medical facilities to treat the wounded.
Many of Sirte’s residents are members of Gaddafi’s own tribe. The NTC says there will be a place for them in the new Libya, but the fighting has caused hostility that it likely to hamper the new government’s efforts to unite the country once the violence is over.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said its team evacuated three wounded from Sirte’s Ibn Sina hospital, including a seriously injured nine-year-old girl.
“Today there were only a few doctors left to treat war-wounded people in the Sirte hospital,” Cordula Wolfisberg, an ICRC doctor who visited the hospital, said in a statement.
“The hospital is packed with civilians from the neighbourhood, including many women and small children.”
Hajj Abdullah, in his late 50s, was at a Red Cross post on the edge of Sirte where food was being handed out.
“My 11-year-old died from the NATO rockets ... I buried him where he died” because it was too dangerous to go to the cemetery, he said. “There are random strikes in the city. People are dying in their houses.”
He said many civilians were unable to leave. “The ones who stayed behind are the poor and the weak.”
Additional reporting by Emad Omar in Benghazi, Libya, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Ahmed Tolba in Cairo, Lutfi abu Oun and Oliver Holmes in Beirut and Baghdad newsroom; Writing by Christian Lowe and Joseph Nasr; Editing by Mark Heinrich