A wounded Libyan man is wheeled into a field hospital near the eastern frontline of Sirte
A wounded Libyan man is wheeled into a field hospital near the eastern frontline of Sirte. Fighting raged in Sirte on Thursday after forces loyal to Moamer Kadhafi tried to break a siege of the ex-leader's hometown, as fighters loyal to Libya's new regime sent reinforcements to Kadhafi's other major holdout of Bani Walid. © Ahmad al-Rubaye - AFP
A wounded Libyan man is wheeled into a field hospital near the eastern frontline of Sirte
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Herve Bar and Rory Mulholland, AFP
Last updated: February 6, 2012

Fighting rages as Kadhafi diehards bid to break Sirte siege

Fighting raged in Sirte on Thursday after forces loyal to Moamer Kadhafi tried to break a siege of the ex-leader's hometown, as fighters loyal to Libya's new regime sent reinforcements to Kadhafi's other major holdout of Bani Walid.

Kadhafi himself called on Libyans to turn out in their millions to demonstrate against the country's new rulers, the National Transitional Council (NTC), in an audio message broadcast on Syria-based Arrai television.

Fighting on Sirte's northeastern front came after Kadhafi's diehards advanced under the cover of darkness late on Wednesday, NTC fighters told AFP.

"There was a lot of movement during the night; their snipers advanced here and there," one fighter said.

Sirte and Bani Walid are Kadhafi's last major bastions against the NTC, which has ruled most of the oil-rich country since the veteran strongman was toppled in August.

By the middle of the day, NTC fighters had halted the pro-Kadhafi assault and were advancing on foot among the buildings, in the face of rocket and sniper fire.

"Today we carried out a pincer movement to try to cut off the Mauritanian Quarter, where there are a number of (Kadhafi) fighters, and to cut off their rear," said an NTC commander, Nasser el-Mgasibi.

He was speaking from Alkardabiya Hotel on the seashore, overlooking the front, which was shelled by Kadhafi forces on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Mussa Ali Yunes, commander of the Jado Brigade, said "we are heading for the southern front of Bani Walid," southeast of Tripoli, speaking of a column of 1,000 men and hundreds of vehicles.

Yunes said efforts were being made to convince the remaining 10 percent of the population still there to leave before a new assault is launched after a month-long siege.

"The offensive could, possibly, be launched in two days, but that depends" on the situation, he added, explaining that the NTC forces were outgunned.

"There are many weapons in Bani Walid, weapons of high technology, very recent, coming from Russia," he said. "We need more precise weapons but also intelligence on the inside, particularly on the number of missiles they have."

"About 2,000 fighters are deployed on the northern front, but they only have light weapons for now, because all the heavy weapons are in Sirte."

Yunes said Kadhafi son "Seif al-Islam is in Bani Walid and possibly Kadhafi as well, but there is a 50 percent doubt about that. There are many Kadhafi loyalists in Bani Walid, more than in Sirte."

On Tuesday, an NTC commander said Seif al-Islam was leading the final stand inside the besieged oasis.

Seif al-Islam, his father and Kadhafi's intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi are the subject of International Criminal Court war crimes arrest warrants for murder and persecution in the bloody uprising.

In his broadcast, the fugitive Kadhafi said: "I call on the Libyan people, men and women, to go out into the squares and the streets and in all the cities in their millions" to reject the NTC.

"I say to them, do not fear anyone. You are the people, you belong to this land," said Kadhafi, whose whereabouts are unknown but is widely thought to still be in Libya.

"Make your voice heard against NATO's collaborators," he said, in reference to the NTC.

"Some people speak of the NTC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people," he said, using a term applied by many of the various foreign governments that recognised the body after it was formed.

"But from where does that legitimacy come from -- their election by the Libyan people? Are they interested in the Libyan people?" he asked.

An AFP correspondent on the western front said 200-300 NTC fighters were in open ground about 1.5 kilometres south of the Ouagadougou conference centre, firing into the city with tanks and missiles, and receiving mortar fire in return, but had made no ground assault.

Many among the thousands of residents who have escaped complained that the biggest danger was not Kadhafi loyalists but the bombs that drop from the sky and the ones the NTC fighters lob into their Mediterranean port city.

NATO regularly rejected accusations by the Kadhafi regime during the revolution of killing civilians.

Amid complaints that NATO air strikes had destroyed homes and killed residents in Sirte, alliance defence ministers discussed the prospects of wrapping up the mission during two days of talks in Brussels.

Officials insisted that the campaign will continue as long as Kadhafi forces pose a threat to civilians.

"Sirte is extremely symbolic. But it is important that we no longer have pockets of resistance," French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet told reporters.

"We will stop when we no longer identify a resistance prohibiting the normal functioning of a state," he said. "Whether Kadhafi disappears from the scene is important, but it's not enough."

NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, US Admiral James Stavridis, recommended to the ministers late Wednesday that the mission continue until the new leadership consolidates control of the entire country, diplomats said.

And with NATO's campaign nearing an end, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta flew to the allied command in Naples to confer with officers overseeing the air war.

He called the NATO intervention a "remarkable achievement" and hailed the fall of Kadhafi's regime after talks Thursday with fellow NATO defence ministers in Brussels.

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