BENGHAZI (AFP) – Libya’s new rulers on Wednesday declared victory in the key southern city of Sabha and conquered the oasis town of Waddan, but suffered heavy casualties in their offensive in Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte.
Officials of the interim ruling National Transitional Council said there were only small pockets of resistance in Sabha, Libya’s largest desert city and home to a strategically vital military base.
The United States prepared to raise the Stars and Stripes Thursday over its Tripoli embassy, after President Barack Obama met Libya’s new leader in New York and pledged support for Libya as it consolidates freedom.
And NATO, whose air strikes have been been instrumental in beating back Kadhafi forces, said Wednesday it was extending its air campaign for another 90 days.
“We are in complete control of the city of Sabha. Everybody, including (those who were) pro-Kadhafi, are now with the revolution,” said Abdelmajid Seif Ennasr, who represents the NTC in Sabha.
He admitted, however, that NTC fighters were still encountering some “resistance from some individuals here and there.”
“Sabha is totally under the control of the revolutionaries,” said Mohammed Wardugu, the Benghazi spokesman of the “Desert Shield Brigade” fighting in the region.
The battle for Sabha, a city of 100,000 people in an area dominated by Kadhafi’s clan, first broke out on June 12 after two days of anti-regime protests in the sprawling oasis.
Meanwhile, NTC commander Ahmed Zlitni said that fighters were planning for a three-pronged attack on Kadhafi’s hometown, Sirte.
“We are working on a strategy to go for a big push from three sides, the east, the west and the south. This is a war, the push could happen in a few days or anytime soon,” Zlitni said.
“We are still giving time for Sirte civilians to leave the city. There is resistance to our forces from Kadhafi’s forces from inside the city.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said meanwhile coalition warplanes would stay in the air as long as Libyan civilians are under threat.
“We are determined to continue our mission for as long as necessary, but ready to terminate the operation as soon as possible,” Rasmussen said.
At Bani Walid, a Kadhafi bastion southwest of Sirte, doctors said two people were killed and another four wounded.
Previously NTC official Abdullah Kenshil reported the death of an NTC fighter in Bani Walid and said new regime forces were preparing for a “decisive” tank-backed battle for the town in the next 48 hour.
Anti-Kadhafi authorities have admitted they lost three men at Sirte on Tuesday, taking the overall death toll since they moved on the city on September 15 to at least 45 NTC fighters.
Meanwhile, 16 patients, most in critical condition, were evacuated on a Qatari military plane to Malta as doctors said the region’s hospitals were overwhelmed.
NTC forces suspect Kadhafi enjoys a broad base of support in Sirte.
“The majority of residents are with Kadhafi,” said Zuber al-Gadir, spokesman of the Misrata military council, adding their persistent loyalty to the ousted leader was a legacy of his now defunct propaganda machine.
In Harawa, an AFP correspondent saw about nine NTC tanks moving towards Sirte’s eastern front, possibly in a bid to boost defences in the face of steady artillery and machinegun fire from Kadhafi loyalists.
In the Al-Jufra oasis towns of Waddan and Hun, NATO said it took out Tuesday one military vehicle storage facility, four anti-aircraft guns and one armed vehicle.
On Wednesday witnesses said Kadhafi loyalists shelled Hun, killing and wounding dozens of people. Speaking by telephone to AFP in Tripoli, they said heavy shelling made it impossible to transport casualties out of the town, and that the power plant had been one of the targets.
In Benghazi, an NTC official announced “the total liberation of Hun.” He said Gaddafi loyalists had fled to the town of Sokna eight kilometres (five miles) away.
Kamal al-Hzifeh, the coordinator between the military command in Al-Jufra and the NTC, said there was fighting between Hun and Sokna and that Grad rockets slammed into Hun.
Earlier an NTC official in Benghazi, Mustafa Huni, said NTC forces had seized most of Waddan and were only facing pockets of resistance in other Al-Jufra towns, about 300 kilometres (186 miles) south of Sirte.
“Seventy percent of the Al-Jufra has been liberated. Waddan is freed, our forces entered the town following NATO bombing of Al-Hisha dam, 20 kilometres (13 miles) from the town,” Huni said.
Despite the setbacks, the fugitive Kadhafi told his remaining loyalists in Libya that the new regime is only temporary, in his latest comments aired on Syrian-based Arrai television.
“What is happening in Libya is a charade which can only take place thanks to the (NATO-led) air raids, which will not last forever,” said Kadhafi, who has been at large since NTC forces overran Tripoli on August 25.
As Libya’s new rulers were feted in New York, interim prime minister Mahmud Jibril said the country’s first formal government since Kadhafi’s ouster would be announced within seven to 10 days.
His statement came after a special summit at which Obama met NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil and announced the US embassy would be reopening and the ambassador, Gene Cretz, returning for Thursday’s flag-raising ceremony.