Libyan civilians caught in battle for Sirte

Libyan rebels are only a couple of miles from the center of Sirte, where Qaddafi loyalists are putting up a fierce fight to protect one of their last two holdouts. Civilians are trapped in the city.

Gaia Anderson/AP
Revolutionary fighters fire from tanks towards Qaddafi troop positions in Sirte, Libya, Monday. After NATO's heavy bombing on Sunday, hundreds of families are leaving the city. Some remain stranded on the outskirts due to lack of transportation or fuel.

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Libyan rebels are closing in on Muammar Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte, one of two remaining Qaddafi loyalists strongholds. On Tuesday morning rebels reportedly captured the town's port and have overrun all but the center of the town.

Taking Sirte would be a huge boost to the National Transitional Council (NTC), the interim government, which is struggling to unite the country's tribes and regions. So long as Mr. Qaddafi remains at large, he can still destabilize the region, interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jabril told the United Nations Security Council today.

Rebels last week took all but a few last pockets of the southern desert town of Sabha, cutting off a key Qaddafi escape route and leaving only Sirte and Bani Walid to be captured, McClatchy reported.

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But the end of the fight raises delicate questions about how best to protect Libya's civilians, while finishing off the Qaddafi regime. Rebels say they have advanced slowly on Sirte to allow civilians time to flee, meanwhile many have been cut off from UN aid, and some report mistreatment at the hands of Qaddafi loyalists.

Mr. Jabril has requested that the NATO air campaign continue as long as civilians are still being killed, Reuters reports.

Sirte is located on the Mediterranean coast between Misrata and Benghazi (see map). Snipers are holding up the rebel fighters' advances into the city from the east and west. Those coming from the east have been halted 1.5 miles from the city center for two days, BBC reports.

Rebel forces told The Wall Street Journal that if it wasn't for their effort to let as many civilians flee as possible before overrunning the city, they would have already captured Sirte.

Civilians have been fleeing Sirte in recent days, but have faced strong suspicion from rebels they encounter on the roads out of the city, The Wall Street Journal reports. On the exit roads to the west, rebel fighters distributed food and water to the fleeing families, but also pulled "suspected loyalists" from the vehicles.

"We're going to punish even those that supported Moammar with words," said a bearded fighter to a man who protested his detention. "We are the knights that liberated Libya."

Many civilians also said they had to sneak out of the city on "rural back roads" after Qaddafi loyalists in the town center tried to block them from leaving Sirte.

Reuters reports that some who fled Sirte say that Qaddafi loyalist fighters have tried to prevent the escape of civilians in order to use them as human shields.

Civilians trapped inside Sirte are facing food, water, and medical supply shortages, Reuters reports. The UN and other humanitarian organizations have been unable to get into the town to deliver supplies. Reports of the shortages come from civilians fleeing – about 1,700 so far, according to UN aid coordinator Panos Moumtzis.

NATO vows it is working to protect civilians in Sirte and elsewhere in Libya as it continues its aerial assaults, in and around Sirte, on Bali Walid (see map), and the areas around the desert town. Mr. Moumtzis said that about 24,000 people – a quarter of the population – have so far fled Bani Walid, mostly to the south. But some have gone to Tripoli, where the humanitarian situation has drastically improved since the rebels took the city.

The availability of supplies is not the issue, Moumtzis said – it is getting supplies to the embattled areas.

A doctor working in a Sirte hospital told the Associated Press that many of the injured brought to the hospital had been hurt by shelling from rebel forces outside the city. "Forces on the city's outskirts fire tank shells, Grad rockets and mortar rounds toward the city daily with little more than a general idea of what they are targeting," according to the AP.

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