Libyan rebels have captured new areas of the strategic coastal city, one of the last strongholds of former leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
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The fighters loyal to Libya’s new National Transitional Council (NTC) launched what they said would be the final assault on Sirte Friday, more than six weeks after the capital, Tripoli, fell to pro-NTC fighters, and more than a month after they turned the focus to Qaddafi’s hometown.
The city sits on Libya’s coast, and is strategically important for anti-Qaddafi forces because it has divided their forces between east and west. But capturing the city is also key politically, because NTC leaders have pledged not to start the timeline to elections and transition to elected government until it has come under their control.
Revolutionary forces say they took control Sunday morning of Sirte’s university, where snipers from Qaddafi’s forces had been using tall buildings to fire on them, reports Agence France-Presse.
Reports conflicted on the nearby Ouagadougou conference center, a complex near the center of the city that the pro-Qaddafi forces have been using as a base. AFP reports that fighting is ongoing there.
The Associated Press reports that a spokesman for revolutionary fighters attacking Sirte from the east has claimed control of the conference center, but said the pro-Qaddafi fighters were fighting back from houses behind the complex, so revolutionary forces are staying back and pounding the complex with artillery before they move in. Meanwhile, a commander in Tripoli told the AP that revolutionary forces are in full control of the center.
The final battle for Sirte has been “vicious,” according to de-facto Libyan leader Mustapha Abdel Jalil.
AFP reports that 23 revolutionary fighters have been killed since Friday, and almost 330 wounded. Other NTC military leaders report even higher casualties.
AP reports that revolutionary forces have also surrounded Green Square, in the city center, and the presidential palace, and have taken control of a hospital where civilians sought refuge. Thousands of civilians are trapped in Sirte, and some have fled the heavy street fighting over the past few days.
CNN reports that a commander on the frontlines for Sirte said the fight has reached its “final stages.” CNN also reports that Libyan commanders told US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta Friday that Sirte would be under their control within a few days. They met with Mr. Panetta at a naval base in Italy, while he was on a trip to the region.
British Defense Secretary Liam Fox, visiting Tripoli Saturday, said that an end to NATO airstrikes was not imminent and that the campaign would continue while pro-Qaddafi forces still threaten civilians in Libya, according to the AP.
Though the NTC claims it is nearing the end of the battle for Sirte, pro-Qaddafi forces still control the city of Bani Walid, about 100 miles southeast of Tripoli. And Qaddafi himself is still on the loose.
The Telegraph has been reporting from the desert city of Ghadames, near the Algerian border, on the search for the former leader. The town was flooded with NTC fighters recently after a tip-off that Qaddafi might be hiding there, and after a realization of the need for control over the open western border, according to The Telegraph.