Libya's interim government force of about 100 vehicles, mounted with heavy weapons, advanced on the southern side of Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte on Saturday in one of the biggest assaults yet, a Reuters reporter in the city said.
The fighters with the National Transitional Council shouted “Allahu Akbar!” or “God is greatest” as they moved off in pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns and heavy machine guns on the back.
Previously, anti-Qaddafi forces slowed their advance on Saturday as a sandstorm whipped up around the ousted despot’s birthplace.
A senior U.S. defense official said, meanwhile, that NATO chiefs believe the fugitive former Libyan leader no longer commands his loyalists, who are on the verge of defeat.
The ruling National Transitional Council has said Libya cannot get an interim government until the North African country is declared free of the last remnant fighters for the fugitive Qaddafi.
After launching what they called a final assault on Sirte with a barrage of rocket and artillery fire, the NTC forces still faced stiff resistance late Friday around the Ouagadougou conference centre.
“We are surrounding them in the centre of the city in an area of just a few square kilometers (miles),” NTC commander Nasser Abu Zian told AFP.
There were also particularly heavy clashes around and inside the university, near the city centre, and in the Mauritanian Quarter, said an AFP correspondent.
On Saturday, an AFP correspondent said the NTC forces halted their advance as a sandstorm reduced visibility to a few hundred meters (yards) on the western edge of Sirte, once a symbol of Qaddafi’s regime.
Civilians from Sirte
Civilians trickled out on foot, including a woman who carried a child in her arms and a man lugging suitcases, as NTC forces stopped cars for identity checks and searches.
“We just want to go somewhere that is safe. I hadn’t been out of my house for three weeks because of all the firing. Lots of houses in my area were hit,” said Sudanese labourer Abdulrahim Kabash.
Milad Gahnatri, whom the NTC forces suspected was Mauritanian, appealed to be let through to seek medical treatment for two pale-looking men in the back of his car.
“These are my brothers. They need kidney dialysis three times a week but the Ibn Sina hospital is damaged by bombing. There are many patients in there and they are all afraid of the firing from all sides,” he said.
In eastern Sirte, NTC fighters overlooking the rectangular-shaped Ouagadougou centre said its concrete bunkers were proving tougher than they originally thought.
“It has been hit for days by tank guns and rockets, but it hasn’t budged. Its paint has hardly been scratched,” said one of them with a Kalashnikov.
Following the ferocious artillery and rocket barrage, hundreds of NTC fighters had tried to enter Sirte at dawn Friday in pick-ups mounted with anti-aircraft and machineguns.
As they advanced, the fighters came under sustained mortar, machinegun and sniper fire but took a 700-home complex west of the centre, they said.
Plumes of black smoke billowed from several parts of the city as the Ouagadougou centre was constantly shelled by 106 mm cannon and anti-aircraft guns.
NATO warplanes flew overhead, and the alliance said in its latest operational update that the only target it struck across the country on Friday was a firing an vehicle staging point in Sirte.
At least 12 NTC fighters were killed and 193 wounded, the military said, but there were no immediate casualty figures from the eastern side of the Mediterranean city, 360 kilometers (225 miles) east of Tripoli.
Late Friday, interim defense minister Jalal al-Digheily said the end of the conflict was near.
Sirte and Bani Walid are Qaddafi’s last major bastions against the NTC, which has ruled most of the oil-rich country since its forces overran Tripoli on August 23.
Qaddafi has since gone into hiding.