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Diehard Qaddafi loyalists in last-ditch Libya battle; NATO deal reopens airspace

Fighters loyal to Muammar Gaddafi fought a last-ditch battle in an ever shrinking pocket of resistance in the ousted leader’s hometown Sirte on Thursday, as Libya’s interim government said that parts of the war-torn country’s airspace has reopened to commercial flights

National Transitional Council (NTC) commanders moved up tanks to fire at buildings from close range to try to dislodge the remaining Gaddafi snipers who are now surrounded on all sides in one small part of the city.

“We have control of the whole of the city except neighborhood ‘Number Two’ where the Qaddafi forces are surrounded,” said Khaled Alteir, a field commander in Sirte.

“This operation is on its dying breath,” said another commander, Colonel Mohammad Aghfeer.

The siege of Sirte, which began after the capital Tripoli fell to the NTC two months ago, has held up Libya’s transition to normality as the country’s new leaders say they will only start building a democratic system after the city is captured.

Qaddafi is believed to be hiding somewhere in Libya’s vast desert in the south of the country.

Green flags in Sirte

Die-hard loyalists to the deposed leader have not given up the fight, answering NTC attacks in Sirte with small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. An NTC commander said Qaddafi’s besieged forces were no longer using heavier weapons.

Green flags, the banner of Qaddafi’s 42-year rule, still fly above many of the buildings in Sirte, but the commander said, the defending forces appeared to have lost their cohesion.

“We’ve noticed now they are fighting every man for himself,” said Baloun al-Sharie, a field commander. “We tried to tell them it’s enough and to give themselves up, but they would not.”

NTC officers say Qaddafi loyalists fear reprisals if they give themselves up.

Some captured fighters have been roughed up by NTC forces and Amnesty International issued a report on Wednesday saying Libya’s new rulers were in danger of repeating human rights abuses commonplace during Muammar Qaddafi’s rule. The NTC said it would look into the report.

Close to the center of the fighting in Sirte, government forces found 25 corpses wrapped in plastic sheets. They accused Qaddafi militias of carrying out execution-style killings. Five corpses shown to a Reuters team wore civilian clothes, had their hands tied behind their backs and gunshot wounds to the head.

As the tanks pounded the apartment blocks where Qaddafi’s men are holed up, pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns moved in behind, then infantry armed with AK-47s began their assault.

One field hospital received two NTC dead and 23 wounded on Thursday. One of the dead men had been hit while taking food up to the fighters on the front line, doctors said.

Airspace reopens

Libya’s interim government said on Thursday that parts of the war-torn country’s airspace has reopened to commercial flights after an agreement it signed with NATO officials in Malta.

“Parts of the Libyan airspace are now open to commercial flights,” the National Transitional Council said in a statement, according to AFP.

“The meeting today resulted in the signing of an agreement between NATO and Libya for the provision of air navigation services by the Libyan civil aviation authority within limited portions of Libyan airspace,” Anwar al-Fayturi was quoted as saying.

“The agreement is an extremely important step towards improving transport and communication in Libya. It is also a clear sign that Libya is stabilizing,” the minister added.

The agreement became effective despite the United Nations’ no-fly zone over Libya, which was passed in March and cleared the way for NATO air strikes on the forces of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

A senior NATO official said Thursday’s agreement would help to guarantee the provision of humanitarian aid to Libya.

“This agreement practically starts the process to take some of the airspace and hand that to the Libyans and other agencies like Malta so that they can ensure that the flow of humanitarian assistance continues and possibly increases,” said Lieutenant General Ralph J. Jodice.

He and Fayturi explained the air corridors which were being handed over to the Libyan civil aviation authorities would link Benghazi to Tripoli and Misrata and the rest of the world.

Air traffic controllers from Malta, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt were present for the signing ceremony.

German Economy Minister Philipp Roesler said 150 wounded Libyans would be treated in Germany. Berlin plans to support Libya with medical supplies and aid and help in training and educating young Libyans, he said according to Reuters.

“We are here because we see the most important raw material of Libya, it is not oil and gas...(it is) the younger people who started the revolution here. They need future and perspective after their victory,” Roesler told a news conference in Tripoli.