Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sirte "largely destroyed"

Sirte, one of the last holdout strongholds of Mommar Gaddafi's armed forces, has suffered the same fate as Misrata. Just as Gadaffi's forces laid siege to and practically destroyed the city of Misrata, the Misrata fighters held out and in a twist of fate, they were given the opportunity to exact revenge on those in Sirte.

By Mary Beth Sheridan, Saturday, October 15,

SIRTE, Libya — After weeks of intense fighting, Moammar Gaddafi’s home town appeared Saturday to have been largely destroyed, with most of its population fled and holes the size of manhole covers blown in apartment buildings and the ousted leader’s showcase convention center.

For Libya’s interim government, capturing the city is paramount and would effectively end the eight-month civil war. But the damage wreaked in Sirte raises the question of whether its residents will go quietly into the post-Gaddafi future — or retain asmoldering anger that could fuel an insurgency.

Under Gaddafi, Sirte grew from a sleepy fishing village to a city of 100,000, favored with some of the country’s finest buildings and public services. Many residents were staunch supporters of the former Libyan leader.

One of them, Sadina Muhammed, said Saturday that she and other residents “will love Gaddafi until death.” She fled Sirte a week ago, after a rebel rocket smashed into her house in the embattled city.

“My family’s home was completely ruined,” she said, standing at a checkpoint outside the city with her 18-year-old daughter, whose arm was in a sling from the blast.

At a field hospital closer to the city, a black-robed resident of Sirte complained that the revolutionaries were also looting. “They take things in the house. If they don’t find something, they will destroy the house,” she said. The woman, who gave her name only as Asma, left for a nearby village two weeks ago.

The ragtag anti-Gaddafi fighters are motivated but undisciplined and untrained, and journalists have spotted a number of them looting. They have battled Gaddafi fighters who have used civilian homes and institutions as cover.

A drive through some of Sirte’s “liberated” neighborhoods revealed the pounding the city has taken. In one area, block after block of small mustard-yellow apartments were peppered with small-arms fire. Artillery fire had blasted holes in the walls, and front doors were ripped off their hinges. The burned-out carcasses of a truck and car littered one empty street.

At the nearby Ouagadougou convention center, a complex where Gaddafi once hosted Arab and African leaders, the beige walls were charred black, and windows were shattered.

Gabriele Rossi, the emergency coordinator in Sirte for the aid group Doctors Without Borders, said the city appeared to have sustained some of the greatest damage of the war. “The part we have seen is almost completely destroyed,” he said.

Revolutionary forces blame the pro-Gaddafi fighters for some of the damage, saying they have also used heavy weapons and have spurned entreaties to surrender.

But the attacking forces clearly feel no need for restraint in bombarding the Gaddafi loyalists. That’s especially true of the many fighters from Misurata, a city to the west scarred by a bloody siege by Gaddafi’s troops in the spring.

The revolutionaries have been firing purloined antiaircraft guns and artillery at apartment buildings where pro-Gaddafi snipers have holed up, causing heavy damage.

Asked why his side used such weapons instead of conducting more surgical strikes, one commander, Bashir Bin Hameda, responded: “We’re not the Special Forces. We’re just teachers, doctors and engineers.”

Hameda said he usually runs the company cafeteria at a steel plant.

Another fighter, Mohamed Nijar, said he used the antiaircraft gun mounted on his pickup truck to attack snipers because “it works.”

The pro-Gaddafi forces now seem to be battling impossible odds. But many of them appear to believe they have no way out, and so are fighting to the death. Some may also have been influenced by propaganda disseminated by Gaddafi’s media before he was toppled.

“The TV told us these people kill and cut off parts of the body. So we were afraid of them,” said Asma’s husband, who identified himself only as Ahmed, referring to the anti-Gaddafi forces. He, however, had come to believe that a lot of the revolutionaries were “good people,” he said.

Doctors fear thousands of civilians may be trapped in the small areas of the city still being contested.

“We are extremely concerned for those people that are inside [Sirte] and cannot get access to health care,” Rossi said.

Libyan NTC slows down in Sirte, advances in Bani Walid

TRIPOLI, Oct. 15 (Xinhua) -- Fighters of the Libyan ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) on Saturday slowed down their attacks in the northern coastal town of Sirte, while their counterparts in Bani Walid managed to take control of new areas in the northwestern oasis city.

According to a source close to Libya's new rulers, the NTC fighters moderated offensives on Sirte on Saturday, hometown of fallen leader Muammar Gaddafi, in order to secure the exits of civilians who were still trapped inside the city, where an estimated 400 pro-Gaddafi soldiers and mercenaries are making a gamble fight.

The source, asked to remain anonymous, told Xinhua that the remnant Gaddafi forces in Sirte had few heavy weapons now besides snipers and some RPGs.

On Saturday, the NTC arrested dozens of foreigners who it believed were hiding illegally in Sirte -- possibly mercenaries. But most of the detainees dismissed links with the battles, local channel Liberal reported.

Meanwhile, a medical source in Sirte said that three NTC fighters were killed and more than 16 in fierce battles in a neighborhood in Sirte on Saturday.

On another front line of Bani Walid, a NTC source said that the authorities had now controlled the eastern front of the city and had besieged Gaddafi's loyalists, who had run short of ammunition and supplies, in the "Olive Tree" region.

The NTC is able to free the majority of the city, Mahmoud Boras, a member of the Media Committee of the local council of Bani Walid, was quoted as saying by local media.

The fighters have fully "liberated" a hospital in Bani Walid and an industrial district, while they have also made progress in a market area with the exception of some sites that are occupied by snipers, Boras said.

He pointed out that it is now the time to negotiate with some of the fugitive pro-Gaddafi remnants scattered in parts of Bani Walid, stressing that the "liberation" of the city is imminent.

The NTC has made repeated promises on the liberation of Sirte and Bani Walid in a timely fashion.
But along with its failure of doing so, it also witnessed a pro- Gaddafi demonstration in the capital, which has been relatively calm since it was controlled by the NTC in late August.

An ensuing violent clashes broke out between the NTC fighters and scores of Gaddafi supporters, who attempted to raise the Gaddafi-era green national flag in the Abu Salim neighborhood in southern Tripoli after the Friday prayer.

Gadhafi hometown pays heavy price in Libyan battle

By KARIN LAUB, Associated Press

SIRTE, Libya (AP) — Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte paid a heavy price for sheltering him in the final battle of Libya's civil war.

Much of the Mediterranean city of palm tree-lined boulevards has been destroyed. Whole neighborhoods are uninhabitable, with shells punching huge holes through homes blackened with soot. There's no electricity or water. Debris-filled streets are flooded from broken pipes.

"It used to be a beautiful city, one of the most beautiful in Libya," said Zarouk Abdullah, 42, a university professor, standing outside his badly damaged family home. "Today it looks like (postwar) Leningrad, Gaza or Beirut."

Sirte once was favored by the old regime with investment and jobs. Now, six weeks of fighting has left many of the 140,000 residents seething over what they believe was wanton destruction by vengeful anti-Gadhafi combatants.

Although some blame Gadhafi for bringing the war home by hiding here in his final days, residents feel overwhelmed by the task of reconstruction and expect little help from Libya's interim government.

Most of the dead appear to have been removed or hastily buried, but there is still a stubborn stench of decay that remains — even a week after Gadhafi's death, which ended the eight-month battle to oust him.

On Thursday, shovel-wielding volunteers wearing surgical or gas masks dug up shallow graves to identify and rebury bodies.

Meteeg al-Gazhali stood on a sandy lot behind a clinic in Sirte's seaside District No. 2 and watched as several men pulled up a corpse, wrapped in a blanket.

"That's Ali," he said quietly after lifting the blanket, identifying his 30-year-old son.

The battle for Sirte began in mid-September, or about a month after revolutionary forces had already taken control of most of Libya, including the capital of Tripoli. Sirte was one of the last holdouts, along with two other loyalist areas.

Resistance in Sirte was fierce, and three weeks into the battle, anti-Gadhafi forces had advanced only a few hundred yards (meters) into the city.

With fighting intensifying, most civilians fled, and only die-hard loyalists remained behind in the city some 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.

There were no indications that Gadhafi was in Sirte beforehand, with reports of him hiding deep in the southern desert, possibly trying to flee the country.

In fact, Gadhafi was hiding in Sirte in the final weeks of the war, living in abandoned homes in District No. 2 with an entourage of about two dozen, including his son Muatassim.

On Oct. 20, as revolutionary forces encircled the neighborhood, Gadhafi and his followers tried to escape in a convoy that was struck by NATO on a highway on the outskirts.

Gadhafi, who suffered some injuries, tried to flee on foot, but he was captured, beaten by a mob and died later that day in mysterious circumstances, prompting international demands that Libya's new leaders investigate his death.

Fighters from the coastal city of Misrata, which rose up early against Gadhafi and suffered immensely under weeks of siege by regime forces in the spring, took the lead in the battle for Sirte and Gadhafi's capture.

It was they who put Gadhafi's body on display in Misrata like a trophy for four days before burying him Tuesday in an anonymous desert grave.

Residents now believe the Misrata fighters intentionally destroyed Sirte, beyond the collateral damage of fighting, to settle old scores.

"I am very angry with the rebels. Look at all this damage," said 26-year-old electrician Mustafa Ali, standing in the debris-filled courtyard of a two-story villa in District No. 2 that was rumored by neighbors to have been Gadhafi's last hiding place.

"If one shot was fired from a house, they would destroy the entire house," he said.

Over the weekend, more than 50 bodies were found strewn across the ocean-view lawn of the Mahari Hotel, which according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, had been in the hands of Misrata rebels during the fighting.

Farraj al-Hemali, a Sirte resident who was among those to discover the dead, said 25 of the corpses were found with their hands tied behind their backs. Blood had soaked into the grass, indicating they were killed on the spot. Among the dead were civilians and Gadhafi loyalists, and most had been shot in the head or chest, he said.

Human Rights Watch called for an investigation of what it described as an "apparent mass execution."

Ibrahim Beitelmal, spokesman for the Misrata military council, denied that fighters from his city were responsible. He said he believes the loyalists were killed by their own comrades, possibly after refusing orders to keep fighting.

Beitelmal also alleged that "the damage in Sirte was done by Gadhafi forces to blacken the image of the rebels."

Anti-Gadhafi fighters did their utmost to prevent bloodshed by giving civilians ample time to leave, he said, adding that those who stayed in the final days were clearly hardcore loyalists.

Zarouk Abdullah, the university professor, scoffed at such claims, alleging that Misrata fighters killed his 34-year-old brother Hisham, whom he described as a civilian.

Abdullah said his brother had stayed behind in Sirte to protect the family home, was taken prisoner and killed with others at the Mahari Hotel. He did not explain how he knew this.

On Wednesday, Abdullah visited Sirte's Ibn Sina Hospital and viewed pictures of disfigured or bloated corpses that had been discovered in recent days, photographed and numbered before temporary burial. Hisham was No. 90. His lower left jaw had been shot off. Abdullah snapped three pictures to take back to his parents so they could start grieving.

Abdullah said he is worried about score-settling. "The (real) war has not started yet. The war will start Nov. 1, after NATO leaves," he said, referring to the end of the military alliance's seven-month mission in Libya.

"People will take revenge," Abdullah predicted, but like others here, he said he does not want more bloodshed.

Beitelmal, the Misrata spokesman, said officials from his city are working with anti-Gadhafi forces in Sirte to help restore basic services, including water and power.

However, al-Hemali said there has been no outside help, dismissing promises from visiting officials from neighboring cities as empty words.

Sirte, which sustained far greater damage than Misrata, must fend for itself, said al-Hemali, the owner of a car wash, as he oversaw the cleanup of the grounds of the Mahari Hotel.

Libya's new government, which is to be formed in coming weeks, will deal with reconstruction but there is no quick fix, said a spokesman, Jalal el-Gallal.

"For sure, all the cities that were destroyed during the war will be rebuilt, but the interim government can't do anything right now, and the new government will provide temporary housing," he said.

In District No. 2, truck driver Muftah Mubarak, 42, said the Gadhafi regime provided security and jobs, blaming the unrest on foreign intervention, including NATO.

He referred to the anti-Gadhafi fighters as "rats," a term used by the former dictator. With Libya awash with weapons, the country could soon see another civil war, he said.

In a gesture of defiance, he stuck his head out of his truck before driving off, yelling the slogan of regime supporters

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