Africa

Libya conflict: Civilian fears in 'final' Sirte fight

A Libyan National Transitional Council fighter flashes the victory sign after finding a weapons depot inside a house in the village of Qasr Abu Hadi, Gaddafi's birthplace.
Image caption National Transitional Council fighters are closing in on Sirte but their technique is messy and gains are partly due to Nato air support

Is this the final battle for Sirte? From what we saw this morning, it seems unlikely.

After a two-day lull, government forces brought in most of their artillery, to fire salvos of shells and rockets in the direction of pro-Gaddafi positions. But there was still a madcap, spontaneous quality to their operations.

Fighters bashed away at the rockets, trying to fix faulty fuses, and some of them fired far too low, whooshing across the scrubby desert and landing in a burst of dust just a few hundred metres away.

More trucks pulled up, and then raced away without any sign of command or organisation.

Two Russian-made tanks roared up in a cloud of blue exhaust smoke, firing out deafening rounds, to no visible effect.

There was incoming fire too. The heavy "crump" of big artillery rounds landing, perhaps a kilometre away, and small arms fire, well-directed from Gaddafi loyalists.

Four injured fighters were pulled back from the front with serious injuries; one of them is unlikely to survive.

One commander said that, yes, this was the final battle, that they would push on to the centre of Sirte in a matter of days. But another told us there were still too many civilians inside.

He had seen Gaddafi loyalists building sand barriers in the morning across roads leading out of the town, to block people from leaving.

In the morning, there was a long line of cars, overloaded with families and their possessions, which had just left Sirte, waiting to refuel at the first truck stop.

Full-scale assault?

They said little, except that they had to leave, to escape the bombardment. But, later in the day, we saw none. Perhaps the pro-Gaddafi forces have now barricaded themselves in, along with thousands of residents.

Or perhaps all those who can leave Sirte have now done so - there have certainly been thousands over the weekend. One resident said those left behind were either too badly injured to leave, or lacked cars and petrol.

Nato jets are audible all the time in the sky above Sirte, and, in the morning, thunderous explosions in the distance suggested where they were directing their bombs.

The hamlet of Abu Hadi, south of Sirte, a well-defended stronghold of Col Gaddafi, was the likely target. By early afternoon the government forces said they had captured it.

That still leaves questions over how they are going to take the centre of Sirte. They believe the Gaddafi loyalists are very well armed, with heavy guns like howitzers, and experience has shown that they know how to use them.

A full-scale assault would certainly require using artillery, with a high risk of civilian casualties. Humanitarian agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has managed to get delegations through the frontlines into Sirte, are warning of this risk.

Yet the transitional government clearly feels some urgency to retake Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi's birthplace and a town on which he lavished all sorts of development projects.

So long as it remains under the control of his supporters, and, it is thought, his fifth son Mutassim, the new government will not feel it is fully in control of the country.

Thousands of men from cities like Misrata are fighting in Sirte. They will not be able to return to the job of rebuilding their communities until the battle for Sirte is over.