Libya rebels poised for final push on Qaddafi's hometown (video)
Libya rebels are amassing to the east and west of Sirte, and have given Qaddafi forces in the strategic city until Saturday to surrender.
Al Nawfiliya, Libya
In Pictures Rebels take Tripoli
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Rebel forces are determined to put an end to the fighting by taking Sirte – Mr. Qaddafi's coastal hometown – and Sabha in the south. After six months of fighting, they feel the end is near.
“It is this close,” says rebel fighter Ahmed Faitouri, putting his thumb and forefinger together as he stood at the rebels' last position on the approach to Sirte from the east, about 80 miles away. He wore a T-shirt that said “Camouflage classic” and carried a Kalashnikov.
Victory in Sirte is crucial because it would unite rebel-held territory from Tripoli in the west to the eastern city of Benghazi, giving the rebels uninterrupted control of the country's long coastal area and its many oil facilities.
Taking Sirte would also pose a key test of rebels' ability to persuade Qaddafi loyalists to admit that a 42-year era of dictatorial rule is over, lay down their arms, and integrate themselves in the new Libya.
Saturday deadline for Sirte's surrender
Rebels are approaching Sirte from both the east and west, but say they will give the city until the end of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr to surrender. If residents and fighters do not lay down arms by Saturday, the rebels say they will take Sirte by force.
National Transitional Council (NTC) leaders have reiterated in the past week that they want to avoid civilian bloodshed by giving the leaders of Sirte a chance to surrender. The residents of the city include members of Qaddafi’s tribe, and members of the elite Khamis Brigade, a military force commanded by Qaddafi’s son, are holding the city.
Qaddafi is still at large, though his wife and three of his adult children fled to Algeria yesterday, according to the Algerian Foreign Ministry. Libyans and outside observers have expressed concern that so long as Qaddafi remains at large, his loyalists are susceptible to striking back against the rebels and challenging their claims of sovereignty.
“But even if we liberate Sirte we are still looking for the head of the snake (Muammar Qaddafi),” says fighter Mohamed Salimi, who normally works at a paint factory.
Sirte 'not more difficult' to take than Brega
The rebel fighters are sending scouting parties ahead, and have gone as far as the Red Valley, where they were less than five miles away from Qaddafi’s forces, they say.
But to avoid getting hit by NATO air strikes, they are holding the main line at this intersection on the coastal highway, says Khaled El Maghrabi, leader of the Benghazi Martyrs Brigade. Yards away were three burned and twisted hulks of vehicles the rebels said NATO had bombed Sunday. One, the remnants of a truck with an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back, was still smoking.