Libyan fighters try to free civilians from town

By Maggie Michael

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 27 2011 6:55 a.m. MDT

Revolutionary fighters fire a tank towards a Gadhafi loyalist sniper position in Sirte, Libya, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011. After Saturday's fighting, revolutionary fighters continue to hold the western road entering Sirte, as NATO bombing activity took place during the day. The whereabouts of the fugitive leader remains unknown and he continues to try to rally supporters.

Gaia Anderson, Associated Press

SIRTE, Libya — Libyan revolutionary forces on Tuesday battled their way into the eastern outskirts of Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, commanders said, in a bid to link up with anti-Gadhafi fighters besieging the city from the west and tighten the noose around the loyalist stronghold.

More than a month after sweeping into Tripoli and ending Gadhafi's nearly 42-year rule, Libyan forces still face fierce resistance from the fugitive leader's supporters on three fronts — in Sirte, the town of Bani Walid southeast of the capital and in pockets in the country's vast desert south.

Some of the heaviest fighting has taken place in Sirte, which anti-Gadhafi forces first attacked nearly two weeks ago, but have pulled back in the face of fierce resistance from loyalists holed up inside.

Revolutionary forces have staked out positions to the west and south of the city, and commanders said anti-Gadhafi forces advancing on Sirte from the east also pushed into the city's outskirts Tuesday.

Abdel-Basit Haroun, a rebel field commander, said his fighters reached a roundabout less than 6 miles (10 kilometers) east of the city center. He said the plan was for the forces from the east and west to meet inside Sirte.

"We are almost there, but the hard phase of the take over has just begun," Haroun said. "We stopped using heavy weapons because the residential areas are packed with families, children and women. We are also facing snipers all over the rooftops of tall buildings."

A revolutionary brigade commander on the city's western front, Al-Tohami Abu Zayan, said that anti-Gadhafi forces can take Sirte "whenever we choose," but are holding back to protect civilians. He said fighters are in touch with civilians inside and working to secure them a way out of the city.

For nearly two weeks, revolutionary forces have regularly fired mortars, Grad rockets and tanks shells into the city. Civilians have fled the city for days, driven out by the fighting as well as deteriorating living conditions, including shortages of food, water and medicine.

The fighters besieging Sirte have received a boost in recent days from NATO, which has played a key role in decimating Gadhafi's military forces since first intervening the Libyan civil war in March.

British Maj. Gen. Nick Pope said Royal Air Force Aircraft struck targets in Sirte and Bani Walid on Monday. "In Sirte, a formation of Tornado GR4s attacked ammunition stores, destroying their targets with Paveway guided bombs," he said.

He said strikes also hit Bani Walid after NATO reconnaissance identified a psychological warfare center and a firing position used by Gadhafi forces.

Michael reported from Cairo.

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