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Libyan forces push into Gadhafi's hometown Sirte

By Ben Hubbard

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 24 2011 6:40 a.m. MDT

Libyans attend an open-air Friday pray while presenting the new flag of their country in downtown Tripoli, Libya, Friday, Sept. 23, 2011.

Bela Szandelszky, Associated Press

SIRTE, Libya — Backed by rockets and heavy artillery, hundreds of Libyan revolutionary fighters pushed into Moammar Gadhafi's hometown from the west Saturday in the first significant assault in about a week.

Explosions rocked the city and plumes of smoke rose into the sky as Gadhafi's forces returned fire with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Ambulances sped from the direction of the fighting, and a doctor said at least one fighter was killed and 25 others wounded in the battle.

The fighters occupied a key roundabout called Zafaran west of the downtown area and said their goal was to occupy two neighborhoods on the western side of the city.

The two sides have been locked in a standoff since former rebels tried to advance on the city a week ago but were repelled by fierce resistance.

Sirte, 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast, is one of three Gadhafi strongholds that refused to surrender after revolutionary forces seized control of Tripoli late last month after a civil war against his 42-year rule.

Revolutionary fighters tried to push into the city last weekend but were driven back by fierce rocket and gunfire, with at least 25 former rebels killed and dozens wounded. They pulled back to regroup and let civilians leave the area, although the two sides exchanged fire daily.

Revolutionary forces said more than 1,300 families have left the city in the past week. A few dozen waiting at a checkpoint outside the city on Saturday described rapidly deteriorating conditions, with entire families hiding in basements and children suffering from diarrhea because clean water is scarce.

A commander of one of the brigades fighting for Sirte, Mohammed al-Sugatri, said foot soldiers had gone past the roundabout and were heading toward the downtown area. He said Gadhafi's forces and snipers also were attacking from buildings on the outskirts of the city.

The former rebels had said they would wait until civilians could escape, but al-Sugatri said commanders decided to advance because several families from the rebel-held city of Misrata were in danger.

"There are lots of people from Misrata who are stuck in the city living in basements. They have no food or water and many of their children are sick so we had no choice but to attack," he said.

A field outside the city's western side was filled with trucks and ambulances filled with wounded men.

Munther Kareyem, a doctor at the field hospital, said one dead fighter and more than 25 wounded had been brought in with shrapnel wounds. One man lost a leg.

Men chanted "There is no god but Allah" as the slain fighter was carried out, covered by a bloodstained white sheet.

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