Gaddafi loyalists make Sirte tough nut to crack

Anti-Gaddafi fighters fire C5 rockets during clashes with pro-Gaddafi forces in Sirte
Image caption Sirte has proved a tough nut to crack for anti-Gaddafi fighters

The combined effects of heavy rains, confusion among the ranks of anti-Gaddafi soldiers and days of heavy fighting for Sirte resulted in an impasse of sorts on Tuesday.

That allowed hundreds of civilians to try to flee the fighting after days of heavy, relentless bombardment.

Cars full of families, with whatever possessions they could muster, drove on back roads to the west of Sirte and away from the front line.

Not only residents of the city, but dozens of migrant workers from Morocco, Tunisia and other countries were squeezed into the back of pick-up trucks. They were getting soaked by the rain, but were just glad to be getting away from Sirte.

"It's really frightening in there," a Moroccan man told me in heavily accented French.

Struggling to keep his wife, young son and few possessions from falling out of the truck, he said: "There's been a lot of heavy shelling and much of the town has been destroyed."

But before anyone was allowed to continue their long journey out and on to Misrata and beyond, there was a rigorous and heavily armed checkpoint to get through at a key intersection just outside the city.

The soldiers from the new government were not interested in migrant workers or families - they were free to go after a quick check of their papers; what they were after were Col Muammar Gaddafi's fighters, hiding among the civilian convoy and hoping to escape.

Image caption Civilians have been trying to flee the city after days of fighting

I saw many young men being ordered out of their cars and taken to the roadside for questioning. Many had no papers and told very unconvincing stories.

All were checked for calluses on their hands or bruises on their shoulders, crude, but telltale signs that they may have been firing or handling weapons.

Among those caught today - squeezed between two female passengers in the back of a car - is believed to have been one of Col Gaddafi's cousins. He was recognised by a sharp-eyed soldier as the car tried to drive down the road towards Misrata.

From what I saw, all of the detainees were treated well during the interrogation, although many were clearly frightened and worried about what might happen next.

A local commander assured us that, after establishing exactly who they were, the men would be taken to a secure location for further questioning.

Committed fighters

Sirte is proving to be a tough nut to crack. Even though many fighters from the previous regime are trying to leave, there are still believed to be hundreds of well-armed and committed soldiers in the city, defending Col Gaddafi's hometown.

Unlike any other battle in this nine-month-long conflict, those trying to win Sirte for the transitional government do not know the city, its suburbs or streets unlike the Gaddafi men remaining here.

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Media captionThe BBC's Wyre Davies says some Gaddafi loyalists are trying to flee Sirte

They are slowly being pushed back under heavy bombardment and, again on Tuesday morning, by Nato attacks.

Several key buildings in the city, like the conference centre, the main hospital and the TV station, have been taken by anti-Gaddafi fighters.

But, each day it seems, the city's defenders use their local knowledge to hit back - often launching counter-attacks with mortars and grenades, and causing many casualties.

The Katiba, or brigade of fighters we have been loosely following for the past few days, all come from the town of Misrata.

After a few days of spectacular successes, making good ground towards Sirte, they are now having a tough few days.

Their commander was killed in battle earlier this week after being shot twice in the chest. His replacement was then badly injured in a grenade attack as they tried to advance inside western Sirte.

'Friendly fire'

There have also been reports of "friendly-fire" incidents - men from the same side inadvertently attacking each other.

That is not surprising given the chaos and lack of communication on the ground.

With the heavy rain and sandstorms, weapons are always jamming and the men are getting cold and wet.

Some of the Misrata Katiba are even talking of going home before the fighting is over, leaving the final battle for Sirte to better equipped and more committed units.

Sirte will fall, eventually, and it will be the last big battle in this bitter, divisive civil war.

But in so doing, the city is being blown to pieces; rebuilding Sirte and the rest of this broken country will take a lot more than money.