A Libyan National Transitional Council fighter flashes the V for victory as the sun sets south of Bani Walid
A Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter flashes the V for victory as the sun sets at an outpost south of Bani Walid. Kadhafi diehards were putting up fierce resistance and in their other remaining bastion, Bani Walid, they mounted a fightback, killing 17 NTC fighters. © Karim Sahib - AFP
A Libyan National Transitional Council fighter flashes the V for victory as the sun sets south of Bani Walid
Herve Bar and Rory Mulholland, AFP
Last updated: February 6, 2012

Anti-Kadhafi fighters seize Sirte police HQ

Fighters from Libya's new regime seized the police headquarters in the centre of Moamer Kadhafi's hometown Sirte on Tuesday as they moved in for the kill against the strongman's remaining diehards.

National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters were also gearing for a fresh onslaught on the desert town of Bani Walid, another remaining bastion of forces loyal to the ousted dictator.

In Sirte, jubilant NTC combatants celebrated the takeover of the strategic police building, which they found to be deserted. They ransacked the complex and destroyed posters of the fugitive Kadhafi that they found inside.

The building's rooftop offers a panoramic view of the whole city, with the seaside 300-400 metres (yards) to the north and the massive Ouagadougou conference centre, captured on Sunday, several kilometres (miles) to the south.

In contrast to Monday, when NTC forces were pounded with rockets and gunfire as they battled Kadhafi loyalists street by street, they met no resistance on Tuesday as they edged into the city centre.

An advance force of about 30 fighters checked each house as they moved forward from the city's east, kicking in doors and covering each other against possible snipers hidden on rooftops.

Clothing abandoned by soldiers and remains of meals were found in some buildings.

The fighters became more cautious once they reached the city centre, sticking to its edges for fear that snipers were lying in wait.

Fighters celebrated by honking the horns of their vehicles and firing into the air, but the jubilation ended abruptly when one apparently shot himself in the throat accidentally and died on the spot.

Early afternoon, fighting erupted southwest of the main square, a vast esplanade that extends from the base of the police building.

An AFP correspondent with NTC forces approaching the sea from the south reported a massive firefight on the edge of a park involving several hundred fighters and dozens of pickups with anti-aircraft guns.

"The Kadhafi fire is coming from three or four tall buildings. We are hitting them hard," one fighter said.

Some fire was being returned, mostly from snipers, with the occasional rocket-propelled grenade.

The fighters were later buoyed by a two-hour visit from NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil, and said he visited the one-time showpiece Ouagadougou conference centre, a major objective that was seized on Sunday.

Medics at a field hospital in western Sirte reported five killed and 42 wounded on Tuesday, while medics in the east reported 11 dead -- including six Kadhafi loyalists -- and 52 wounded.

The NTC forces had besieged Sirte from September 15 before launching on Friday what they termed a "final assault" that has seen nearly 80 of their number killed and hundreds wounded, according to medics.

Wissam bin Ahmid, commander of NTC forces on Sirte's eastern front, said early Tuesday his fighters were close to overrunning the entire city but still feared for the safety of many civilians.

"There remains still two square kilometres (0.8 square mile) to take to free the city completely," Ahmid told AFP.

"There are still some snipers. But our main worry are the families still in the city who are too afraid to leave their houses as the snipers are using them as firing posts," he said.

Yusef Sultan, a man in his 40s, was hit by a bullet in the leg as he tried to flee in a car.

"The Kadhafi forces prevented us from leaving, slashing the tyres of cars in garages and forcing us to turn back," he said.

After dark the fighting died down, with only occasional bursts of gunfire, and streams of NTC fighters in vehicles began pulling out for the night.

One of them, Jihad Maagut, said "it's not finished yet. We're going to move in again at dawn. We have to go house by house."

In Bani Walid, an oasis 170 kilometres (105 miles) southeast of Tripoli, the military said NTC fighters withdrew from forward positions in a "tactical pull back" after intense fighting on Sunday.

"We lost 17 fighters in fierce clashes on Sunday and our forces have withdrawn from the airport where they had taken control," said Salem Gheith, head of the NTC military command centre in the capital.

Civilians fearing more clashes were fleeing Bani Walid on Tuesday, an AFP reporter on the edge of town said.

"We hear that there will be fighting. In the town, there is no doctor, no water, no electricity," said a man in a white Mitsubishi that also carried four veiled women.

He said "more than 20,000" civilians were still holed up in Bani Walid.

"There are mercenaries and militia in the streets," said the man.

NTC fighters distributed fruit juice and sweets to the fleeing families.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said the alliance was close to ending its mission in Libya, but despite NTC advances in Sirte, NATO "had no knowledge of the colonel's whereabouts," adding that Kadhafi "is not a target of our operation."

NTC commanders say prisoners have said that one of Kadhafi's sons, Mutassim, is in Sirte.

Another, Seif al-Islam, once seen as the former strongman's successor, is believed to be hiding in Bani Walid, possibly with his father.

Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, head of the NATO military committee, said that while an NTC victory in Sirte "will be an iconic moment", the alliance will only end its air campaign once civilians are definitely out of harm's way and the NTC is capable of keeping the whole country safe.

On the political front, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was in Tripoli to reopen its embassy and announce funding to help the NTC secure weapons stockpiles.

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