Libyan city of Sirte on the brink of falling
Fighters celebrate 'capture' of Gaddafi's son Mutassim and tighten grip on troops loyal to fo in Sirte
Peter Beaumont The Guardian, Wednesday 12 October 2011
The Libyan coastal city of Sirte was on the brink of falling to government forces as fighters loyal to the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafiwere trapped in a tightening pocket 500 metres wide and twice as long.
The latest gains for the forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) came as its officials said Gaddafi's son Mutassim, who had been commanding the city's defences, had been captured in a car trying to flee with his family on Tuesday evening and taken to Benghazi for questioning.
News of the capture, which was announced by Colonel Abdullah Naker of the NTC, spread quickly around jubilant government fighters in the area who fired tracer and anti-aircraft rounds into the air to celebrate.
The reported arrest of Mutassim – referred to as "Number 1" on pro-Gaddafi forces radio traffic – underlined the depth of the collapse of Sirte's loyalist defenders in the past week. Mutassim is the first major figure in Gaddafi's inner circle to have been captured by the NTC.
"More than 80% of Sirte is now under our control. Gaddafi's men are still in parts of neighbourhood No 2 and the 'Dollar' neighbourhood," said NTC field commander, Mustah Hamza, early in the day.
By afternoon, it appeared that barely 5% of the city remained under the control of those fighting for Gaddafi, who is still on the run after rulingLibya for 42 years. As government forces completed the clearing of the city's east, rumours began to circulate that it had finally capitulated. "Sirte is free!" said one man heading to join the fighting in the city centre.
Behind him, about 30 heavily armed pickup trucks had gathered in Green Square, firing weapons in the air near a group of prisoners.
As loyalist fighters cleared houses, posters depicting Gaddafi were doused in petrol and set on fire while green flags – the symbol of Gaddafi's rule – were torn down or shot through. "We have to clear these streets and houses one by one," said Lofti al-Amin, a fighter wearing a peaked airline pilot's hat. "We have found 10 guns so far and taken seven prisoners. We go into the houses and, if there are people there, we ask if they have guns. If they don't, we try to help them leave."
In one street, surrounded by the sound of conflict, a family tried to pack straw under the wheels of their bogged-down car so they could escape the fighting. There was widespread looting and a steady procession of expensive cars – many damaged by gunfire – were being towed out of the city.Libya's de facto leader, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, said he was optimistic that the ex-rebels would declare total victory in less than a week, opening the way for a new transitional government to be formed within a month. "I hope that liberation will be declared in less than a week, after we free Sirte, and within less than a month we will form a transitional government and the youth and women will have a role in that," he said.
Libya's new rulers have promised to declare victory after the capture of Sirte and to name a new government that will guide the oil-rich north African nation to elections within eight months.
Gaddafi's supporters hold the desert enclave of Bani Walid, but the new leaders say Sirte's capture will give them full control of the country's ports and harbours, allowing them to move forward with efforts to establish a democracy.
With nowhere to escape and hemmed in from three sides, a hardcore of the defenders of Gaddafi's home town – perhaps fearful of the treatment they believed they would receive if captured – continued to fight it out against hopeless odds.
At times, government fighters were forced to try to advance through thigh-deep water and sewage flooding large parts of the streets of District 2, the western neighbourhood and last location where Gaddafi forces are still holding out. Shots from the high buildings ahead of them threw up small spouts of water. Occasionally a pro-Gaddafi fighter could be seen on a rooftop.
According to government fighters, the area had been deliberately flooded to slow them as they cleared the last streets under Gaddafi control.
Despite the inevitability of defeat in Sirte, machine gunners on the rooftops continued to target the government forces while others fired RPGs and mortars. In one frontline area where fighters were gathering, one building was repeatedly hit, bullets ripping across its top floors.
The government forces replied with volleys of rockets and anti-aircraft fire that left the buildings being targeted blackened and shattered.
The already angry mood towards the loyalists hardened with the discovery, in three locations in the city, of 30 captured men who had been cuffed and executed. According to government commanders, the men had been killed on Tuesday.
International Medical Corps, a non-profit organisation, said it visited the Ibn Sina hospital in Sirte on Tuesday and said it was "functioning at the bare minimum".
The organisation is providing staffing and support to the field hospital, 30 miles outside Sirte. It says more than 600 patients have been seen at the field hospital, 359 seen in the first week of October and 226 on 7 October alone, when forces loyal to the interim government launched their major offensive on Sirte.
The IMC director for Libya, Hakan Bilgin, said: "We have got people who are being injured directly related to the conflict, we've got people having respiratory problems owing to stress, people not having proper medication, people suffering from fatigue. We've been to the Ibn Sina hospital. It is in very bad shape, almost destroyed. It is unusable."
Libya fighters capture Gaddafi son in Sirte: NTC
TRIPOLI/SIRTE, Libya - Libyan government fighters captured Muammar Gaddafi's son Mo'tassim in Sirte on Wednesday after he tried to escape the battle-torn city in a car with a family, officials with the National Transitional Council (NTC) told Reuters.
The capture of the deposed leader's national security adviser, and the first member of the Gaddafi family, is a big boost to Libya's new rulers whose forces are still battling pro-Gaddafi fighters in his home town of Sirte.
"He was arrested today in Sirte," Colonel Abdullah Naker told Reuters. Other NTC sources said Mo'tassim was taken to Benghazi where he was questioned at the Boatneh military camp where he is being held. He was uninjured but exhausted.
Hundreds of NTC fighters took to the streets in several Libyan cities and fired shots in the air in celebration after Arab television channels broadcast the news of his arrest.
Gaddafi loyalists have fought tenaciously for weeks in Sirte, one of just two major towns where they still have footholds, two months after rebels seized the capital Tripoli.
But NTC fighters have made significant advances in Sirte in recent days. On Wednesday they said they were fighting pro-Gaddafi fighters in two small areas in the city.
Many people who study Libya believe Mo'tassim belongs to a conservative camp -- rooted in the military and security forces -- which resisted his brother Saif al-Islam's reform attempts.
A senior NTC military official told Reuters that Mo'tassim had cut his usually long hair shorter to disguise himself.
Gaddafi and his most politically prominent son, Saif Al-Islam, have been on the run since the fall of Tripoli in August. Gaddafi himself is believed to be hiding somewhere far to the south in the vast Libyan desert.
His daughter Aisha, her brothers Hannibal and Mohammed, their mother Safi and several other family members fled to Algeria in August and have lived their since. Another son, Saadi, is in Niger.
'80 PERCENT UNDER OUR CONTROL'
NTC fighters in Sirte walked up the same battle-scarred streets strewn with empty ammunition cases where they had fought fierce clashes a day before. Other fighters searched damaged houses as a few civilians emerged from their basements.
"More than 80 percent of Sirte is now under our control. Gaddafi's men are still in parts of the Number Two and the 'Dollar' neighborhoods," said NTC commander Mustah Hamza.
In the "Number Two" neighborhood, government forces found 25 corpses wrapped in plastic sheets. They accused pro-Gaddafi militias of carrying out execution-style killings.
Five corpses shown to a Reuters team wore civilian clothes and had their hands tied behind their backs and gunshot wounds to the head.
"There are about 25 innocent people with their hands tied. There is no humanity. It's sad," said NTC commander Salem al Fitouri standing besides the corpses, which he said had been there for at least five days.
Green flags, the banner of Gaddafi's 42 years in power, still flew above many of the buildings in the neighborhood, but all appeared quiet.
NTC fighters maneuvered a tank into a small side street flooded with sewage from a burst pipe. It fired a few rounds at a large building up ahead, then infantrymen moved in, letting off bursts from their AK-47s as they advanced up the street.
At first, there was very little return of fire from the pro-Gaddafi side. But the government fighters had walked into an ambush. Hit by a hail of RPG and small arms fire, the NTC men scrambled back to safety, one nursing a wound to his hand.
Medical workers at a hospital outside Sirte said four NTC fighters were killed and 43 others were wounded on Wednesday.
The NTC has said it will start the process of rebuilding Libya as a democracy only after the capture of Sirte, a former fishing village transformed by Gaddafi into a showpiece for his rule, replete with lavish conference halls and hotels.
NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil said on a visit to Sirte on Tuesday that it would take two more days to take the town.
But the remnants of Gaddafi's forces, surrounded on three sides in Sirte and with their backs to the sea, have so far fought tenaciously, perhaps believing they face mistreatment or worse at the hands of their ill-disciplined foe.
Back from the front line, fighters from the National Transitional Council jostled with one another as one man tried to punch a wounded prisoner and others struggled to keep him off. The prisoner repeatedly shouted out that he was a civilian.
"But you had a gun," his captors said.
"I never used it," he said, fear in his eyes.
Any male of fighting age still in Sirte was under suspicion.
"We were staying in a basement," one man, Gamal Ammar, said alongside family members. "Some of us were hit. If we had died it would have been better. We had no water and no food. We couldn't get out." As NTC fighters drew near, he fell silent.
One man held up a passport and said: "I am Sudanese and I was not fighting." He was put in plastic cuffs and led away.
Gaddafi recruited large numbers of black Africans to his forces. NTC fighters often accuse every black man, including migrant workers, of having fought for the former leader.
Four other men being taken away on the back of a pick-up truck said they were from Chad and also denied taking part in the conflict.
NTC fighters pushed back reporters trying to talk to them. "They are liars, we found guns with them," one said.