The international Red Cross warned of a medical emergency in Moamer Kadhafi's hometown Sirte as the battle for the fugitive Libyan strongman's largest remaining bastion raged into Sunday.
A Red Cross team, which delivered desperately needed supplies to medics in the besieged coastal city on Saturday, said the hospital had come under rocket fire as new regime forces stepped up their assault on Kadhafi diehards.
A large force of National Transitional Council fighters pushed in from the south to lay siege to the Ouagadougou Conference Centre, a showpiece venue close to the Ibn Sima hospital where Kadhafi hosted the launch of the African Union.
Intense exchanges raged for at least two hours despite pleas from the Red Crescent for a lull while the International Committee of the Red Cross team made its delivery, NTC fighters said.
"It's a dire situation," ICRC team leader Hichem Khadhraoui told AFP.
Staff at the Ibn Sima hospital told the team that "because of lack of oxygen and fuel for the generator, people are dying."
Other wounded or ill people cannot get to the hospital because of the fighting and NATO air strikes, Khadhraoui added.
"Several rockets landed within the hospital buildings while we were there. We saw a lot of indiscriminate fire. I don't know where it was coming from," he said.
After the ICRC team went in, NTC fighters launched a ferocious attack with rockets, anti-tank cannons and machinegun fire from a position less than a kilometre (half a mile) from the hospital.
Kadhafi loyalists responded with mortar and sniper fire.
"We were surprised" that the attack took place while the team was visiting, Khadhraoui said, adding that they had "contacted all parties to say we were going in."
The hospital's water tower was hit, forcing staff to bring in water from outside, he said.
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A force of some 100 NTC vehicles, including anti-tank guns and multiple missile launchers, had pushed in towards the city centre around midday (1000 GMT) and laid siege to Kadhafi diehards in the conference centre, one of the largest complexes in Sirte.
"We are surrounding the Ouagadougou Centre," fighter Osama Blao told AFP as he returned from the front line.
Several NTC fighters said the Red Crescent had asked them to stop firing because the ICRC team was in the nearby hospital.
After two hours of intense clashes, some fighters pulled back, they added.
The ICRC had been trying for weeks to enter Sirte, which has been under siege by NTC forces since the middle of last month.
It had sought to bring medical supplies in by boat but abandoned that idea because of security concerns. Sirte's port is now in the hands of NTC forces and there has been fierce fighting around it since its capture.
Khadhraoui's team on Saturday included a doctor, a first aid medic and a logistician, he said. It delivered about 150 body bags and 300 "war wounded kits" consisting of drips, drugs, gauze and other medical equipment.
The team did not tour the wards or carry out a full assessment of the hospital's medical needs but hopes to return soon to bring in more supplies. "Oxygen is the main thing they asked for," Khadhraoui said.
Some of the hundreds of residents fleeing Sirte said there had been civilian casualties there when residential buildings were hit, either by artillery fire from besieging new regime forces or by NATO air strikes.
"I left with my family as we are caught between NATO bombings and shelling by rebels. NATO, in particular, is bombing at random and is often hitting civilian buildings," said a man who only gave his first name, Ali.
A rocket killed two children when their family joined the desperate exodus of thousands fleeing Sirte on Saturday.
The two children killed "were torn to pieces," said Ahmed Abu Aid, a field medic on the western side of Sirte. "They collected the body parts in bags."
Redwan Abdulrahim, whose small truck was piled high with suitcases and other possessions as he drove out on the coast road to the west, said the situation in the city was increasingly difficult.
"It was really bad. We didn't know where the bullets and rockets were coming from."