Friday, October 14, 2011
End Game Sirte
THE war in Libya is reportedly reaching endgame, with only 100 Gaddafi loyalists left fighting in the town of Sirte.
Reuters Oct 14, 2011 – 8:48 AM ET
By Rania El Gamal and Tim Gaynor
SIRTE, Libya — Libyan government forces pushed tanks deep into the city of Sirte on Friday to try to smash the last pocket of resistance by loyalists of ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi in his home town.
The mostly untrained militia army of the National Transitional Council (NTC) has gradually tightened its strangle-hold around Sirte for weeks in a chaotic struggle that has cost scores of lives and left thousands homeless.
It has also held up the attempt by Libya’s new leaders to try to build a democratic government, as they say the process will begin only after the city is captured.
NTC commanders say Gaddafi’s die-hard loyalists now only control an area measuring about 700 metres north to south, and around 1.5 km east to west in a residential neighbourhood mostly of apartment blocks.
“We are going to engage them with tanks and heavy artillery first, after that we will send in the pick-up trucks with anti-aircraft guns, then the infantry,” said Abdul Hadi Doghman, commander of the Dat al-Ramal brigade, one of the many loosely organised militias besieging the trapped Gaddafi forces.
The biggest obstacle to taking the town has been Gaddafi’s snipers hiding in the buildings. Tanks are used to hit the buildings from close range and dislodge the snipers.
Green flags, the banner of Gaddafi’s 42-year rule, flew above many of the buildings in the loyalist enclave. An occasional sniper shot zipped past as the government forces cleaned their weapons and prepared to do battle another day.
But there was no extra build-up of troops on Friday and the NTC forces did not appear to be preparing for a final push.
Gaddafi himself is believed to be hiding somewhere in the vast Libyan desert. A senior NTC official denied reports by other officials in the new government that Gaddafi’s son Mo’tassim had been captured in Sirte.
Gaddafi’s encircled forces in Sirte can have no hope of victory, but still fight on, inflicting dozens of casualties with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small arms.
One field hospital received two dead NTC fighters and 23 wounded on Thursday. One of those killed had been hit while taking food up to the fighters on the front line, doctors said.
FEAR OF REPRISALS
One NTC commander said Gaddafi’s forces were no longer using heavier weapons and appeared to have lost their cohesion.
“We’ve noticed now they are fighting every man for himself,” said Baloun al-Sharie, a field commander. “We tried to tell them it’s enough and to give themselves up, but they would not.”
NTC officers say Gaddafi loyalists fear reprisals if they surrender — some captured fighters have been roughed up.
Amnesty International issued a report on Wednesday saying Libya’s new rulers were in danger of repeating human rights abuses commonplace under Gaddafi. The NTC said it would look into the report.
NTC forces found 25 corpses wrapped in plastic sheets near the Sirte battle zone on Wednesday. They accused Gaddafi militias of carrying out execution-style killings. Five corpses shown to a Reuters team wore civilian clothes, had their hands tied behind their backs and gunshot wounds to the head.
Although the battle for Libya is not quite over, the new government and its NATO backers who helped topple Gaddafi are looking towards a return to normality.
The NTC and the Western military alliance signed an agreement on Thursday to immediately open air corridors for international civilian flights from Benghazi, and domestic flights between the second city and Tripoli and Misrata.
This is a first step toward NATO lifting its no-fly zone over Libya imposed after Gaddafi began a military assault on civilians protesting his one-man rule.
The despot’s last stronghold is close to falling as rebels prepare to declare total victory.
Pro-Gaddafi fighters are now coralled into an area of the city 750 metres wide by 500 metres deep.
Rebel commander Dr Salah al-Obeidi, a dentist before the war, said: “There are a hundred fighters, maybe a little more, holding us up.
“They are finished. All they can do is surrender.”
Libyan revolutionaries tighten hold in Sirte
Libya’s revolutionaries on Thursday mopped up pockets of resistance and continued to consolidate control over what was the last significant stronghold of forces loyal to former dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Fighters inside Sirte fired assault rifles at posters of the man who was once their leader. At one intersection, they torched a billboard bearing a huge poster of Gadhafi in Bedouin garb.
Sirte is Gadhafi’s birthplace, and he had rewarded what was once a sleepy fishing village richly, building hotels, villas and ornate conference centers here. Now it lies in ruins after weeks of fighting.
Libya’s transitional government said that once Sirte is secure, it can move toward the next phase of establishing a democratic government.
“After we free Sirte … we will form a transitional government, and the youth and women will have a role in that,” said Libya’s new leader, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil.
Gadhafi loyalists remain in Bani Walid, a town southeast of Tripoli.
Securing Sirte was a more significant problem for revolutionary forces, because the city lies on the coastal road between the capital, Tripoli, and the east of the country, where the rebellion first took hold.
Forces loyal to Libya’s new leaders, the National Transitional Council, have besieged Sirte for nearly a month.
Last week, fighters loyal to the transitional government began a major offensive on Sirte. Fighters pushed in on five separate fronts.
Hundreds of pickups gathered on the main highway, blasting away with heavy guns before seizing residential neighborhoods on the outskirts of the coastal city.
By Wednesday, Sirte was overrun as transitional government fighters stormed through the streets, taking out snipers and blasting buildings with anti-aircraft guns.
The main boulevard had been flooded by Gadhafi loyalists to prevent their opponents from getting access to parts of the city, but the fighters waded through dirty water and advanced to a small area of the city within a neighborhood called District 2, where the last of the Gadhafi loyalists were holding out.
The streets of Sirte are filled with burned-out cars. Green flags, signaling loyalty to Gadhafi, still flew on many buildings. Where they could, the revolutionary forces took the flags down and set them on fire.
Shops and homes were ransacked as revolutionary fighters went from house to house shooting the locks off doors.
One pair of fighters made off with a new 50-inch plasma-screen television wedged in the backseat of their mud-covered pickup.
Others made off with cars and bicycles, joy-riding through the streets.
Fighters daubed the walls with graffiti, writing the names of their units in paint on the bullet-scarred walls of the buildings there.
There were still some civilians in the city. In one home in the Zizi Bahria district, more than 30 Sudanese men, women and children were hiding in a series of rooms in the basement. They pleaded for help, asking to be evacuated out of the city.
One man emerged from a villa on the sea front asking for gas for his car so he could drive out of the city.
“We are families here,” said Mohammed Ahmed, 42.
He said that he had come to Sirte two months ago and hadn’t left his home for more than two weeks.
The fighters used a pickup to tow his car out of the city, taking him and his family to safety.