SIRTE (AFP) – Intense fighting raged in Sirte on Thursday after forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi’ tried to break a siege of the ousted strongman’s hometown by fighters loyal to Libya’s new regime.
Amid complaints that NATO air strikes had destroyed homes and killed residents in the city, the alliance was considering how quickly it could end its air campaign.
Fighting on the northeastern front line was presaged when the toppled leader’s diehards advanced several hundred metres (yards) overnight under the cover of darkness, fighters of the National Transitional Council told AFP.
“There was a lot of movement during the night; their snipers advanced here and there,” an NTC fighter told AFP.
Sirte, some 360 kilometres (225 miles) east of the capital is one of Gaddafi’s last bastions against the NTC, which has ruled most of the oil-rich country since the veteran strongman was toppled in August.
The two sides battled with automatic weapons along the road leading from a luxury hotel on the seaside, an area of the city that has been under control of the NTC fighters for the past week.
“They (snipers) advance and fall back, constantly changing position. They are using this tactic to make us believe they are advancing towards us and to relieve pressure (on themselves),” NTC officer Nagib Mismari said.
Several NTC fighters suggest that the loyalists are trying to breach the opposition siege to extricate one of their leaders.
Long-standing rumours have it that one of the ousted leader’s sons, Mutassim, remains in Sirte, commanding loyalist operations from the town’s main hospital.
NTC forces have besieged Sirte since September 15 but have not managed to penetrate the heart of the city because of fierce resistance.
An AFP correspondent on the western front said 200-300 NTC fighters were in open ground about 1.5 kilometres south of the Ouagadougou conference centre, firing into the city with tanks and missiles, and receiving mortar fire in return, but had made no ground assault.
NTC field commander Salah al-Jabo said his men were trying to evacuate the Ibn Sina hospital near the Ouagadougou centre, what he said he believes may be one of the pro-Gaddafi fighters bases.
He said the “Red Cross is already there,” and the reporter said he had seen at least one vehicle from the agency enter the city.
Jabo estimated there were only around 800 pro-Gaddafi fighters left in the entire city, and that the area under their control had been reduced to around 20 square kilometres (eight square miles).
At the same time he said there were only about 400 civilians left in Sirte. That figure was impossible to confirm, but the reporter said that only a trickle of refugees had come out on Thursday and the previous day, compared with dozens if not hundreds of cars in previous days.
Many among the thousands of residents who have escaped complained that the biggest danger was not Gaddafi loyalists but the bombs that drop from the sky and the ones the NTC fighters lob into their Mediterranean port city.
International aid workers also say NATO bombing is sometimes doing the opposite of what it is supposed to do in the city that was home to around 100,000 people before the Libyan revolution kicked off in February.
When asked if NATO was fulfilling its mission to protect civilians, one aid worker, who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak publicly, replied: “It wouldn’t seem so.”
“There’s a lot of indiscriminate fire,” he said, adding that many residents and doctors he had spoken to had complained of the deadly results of NATO air strikes.
NATO regularly rejected accusations by the Gaddafi regime during the revolution of killing innocent civilians.
It did so again when asked by AFP if its bombs might have killed non-combatants in Sirte.
“When we absolutely need to intervene to protect the population, we do so with utmost care, targeting only military assets and using precision guided munitions to avoid civilian casualties,” a NATO official said.
The official noted in an email that the alliance “has not conducted any strike in Sirte since last weekend and is siding with none of the forces on the ground.”
In the meantime, NATO defence ministers discussed the prospects of wrapping up the mission during two days of talks in Brussels, with officials insisting the campaign will continue as long as Gaddafi forces pose a threat to civilians.
“Sirte is extremely symbolic. But it is important that we no longer have pockets of resistance,” French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet told reporters.
“We will stop when we no longer identify a resistance prohibiting the normal functioning of a state,” he said. “Whether Kadhafi disappears from the scene is important, but it’s not enough.”
NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, US Admiral James Stavridis, recommended to the ministers late Wednesday that the mission continue until the new leadership consolidates control of the entire country, diplomats said.
Once the country is deemed secure, Stavridis suggested that the aerial and maritime surveillance missions carry on for two weeks until NATO is “sure that fighting has ended,” the diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the decision to halt the operation would hinge on the ability of NTC forces to maintain order — not on the fate of Gaddafi.
“The termination of the operation is not dependent on Colonel Gaddafi,” he said.
Officials said the alliance had to make a political judgement, balancing the need to prevent attacks on civilians while avoiding the impression of meddling.
“It will be a political decision, which will involve the UN and the NTC and it will be a question of an international concert of opinion that the time has come,” said a senior NATO official.
“The big risk is that one day we stop and the next day there is a massacre, in which case we would have failed.”