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Libyan forces besiege Gadhafi's hometown Sirte

By Ben Hubbard

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Sept. 25 2011 5:16 a.m. MDT

Mahmood Jibril, chairman of Libya's Transitional National Council executive board, addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011.

Mary Altaffer, Associated Press

SIRTE, Libya — Libya's revolutionary fighters stepped up a siege of Moammar Gadhafi's hometown on Sunday, hoping to wear down loyalist forces a day after an offensive failed to dislodge die-hard loyalists of the fugitive leader.

Anti-Gadhafi fighters set up new checkpoints and posted snipers in strategic areas on the outskirts of Sirte. But they said they were not planning another assault immediately after facing fierce resistance on Saturday that left seven of their comrades dead and more than 150 wounded.

"It's unlikely we'll attack today unless we are attacked," said Aiman Majub, who helps coordinate revolutionary forces. "The idea is to catch our breath and regroup so we can be more strategic instead of blasting our way in."

Saturday's battle for downtown Sirte was the first significant push in a week and included close-range gunfights with loyalists hiding in apartment buildings and throwing hand grenades from windows. The fighters pushed east along the city's main thoroughfare into its urban center, overrunning a TV station as NATO warplanes supporting anti-Gadhafi forces roared overhead.

Osama Nuttawa al-Swehli, a revolutionary logistics officer, said the goal on Sunday was to squeeze the city and prevent any former regime figures believed to be holed up inside from escaping. Al-Swehli said he has heard Gadhafi's son Muatassim communicating by radio with loyalist forces inside Sirte.

"We have to make sure that no supplies get in and that none of their assets escape," he said.

"The priority today is to hold our positions while pounding their targets," he said, adding that they needed to take out loyalist rocket launchers before making another push to take the city.

He said that seven men were killed and 152 wounded, 17 seriously, in Saturday's fighting. Four of those injured lost limbs and four others had serious head wounds, he said.

Sirte, 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast, is the Libyan city most associated with Gadhafi and one of three strongholds that have refused to surrender more than a month after revolutionary forces seized Tripoli and much of the rest of the North African nation.

Revolutionary forces have been working to help civilians trying to flee the city amid rapidly deteriorating living conditions. More than a dozen families drove out toward the west Sunday morning, riding in battered cars with mattresses and suitcases strapped to their roofs.

Al-Swehli said he thinks most of the families who intend to flee have already left the city. It remains unclear how many civilians remain inside the city and if they are helping loyalist forces.

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