SIRTE, Libya, Sept 27 (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi were on Tuesday resisting an attack on the deposed Libyan leader’s home town with the ferocity of men who, in all likelihood, are making their last stand.
Fighting was focused on a roundabout to the east of Sirte city centre where the forces of Libya’s new rulers, the National Transitional Council (NTC), were pinned down by sniper, artillery and rocket fire from the city’s defenders.
On Tuesday afternoon, several hours into the battle, an NTC fighter left his unit a short way beyond the roundabout and came towards the rear to seek help. He was crying and in a panic.
“We need help, we need help,” he said to fellow fighters. “Some of our men are stuck inside and they are badly injured. Please move inside so that they we can pull them out of there.”
One of the fighters he was appealing to tried to comfort him. No one though, went forward to help rescue his wounded comrades: the incoming fire was too heavy.
Gaddafi’s home town and the power base of his tribe, Sirte was always likely to be a tough place to capture.
Anti-Gaddafi officials say many of the most hardened Gaddafi loyalists who had been in other parts of the country fell back to Sirte, together with supplies of weapons and ammunition, when the rebellion spread.
Those loyalists in the city are now surrounded. NTC fighters are positioned to the south, east and west. To the north is the Mediterranean Sea, where a NATO naval blockade makes escape unlikely.
At the roundabout, attacking forces moved up two tanks and twelve truckloads of infantry to try to break the deadlock.
But the pro-Gaddafi forces seemed to have found the range of the tanks and were directing artillery fire at them.
The NTC fighters meanwhile had to shelter behind metal shipping containers, unable to move, because of sniper fire. “Where is it coming from?” asked one fighter as bullets whistled through the air nearby.
Several ambulances raced back towards a field hospital carrying wounded NTC fighters. A pickup truck appeared, driven by fighters trying to evacuate a comrade who had a shrapnel wound to his shoulder.
They did not know where to take him. They drove up to a group of journalists, shouting “Ambulance! Ambulance!” before driving off again in search of help.
On the other side of Sirte, another set of NTC fighters had stopped fighting while their commanders tried to negotiate a truce with elders from Gaddafi’s tribe. But at the roundabout, there was no sign of any truce in prospect.
“They (pro-Gaddafi forces) have all sorts of stuff, from snipers to rocket-propelled grenades and rockets, everything, and they seem to be very close and accurate,” said Mohammed Faraj, an NTC fighter who was on a pick-up truck mounted with an anti-aircraft gun.
“Some shrapnel almost hit my truck. There aren’t enough fighters to back us up. There are only a dozen trucks. The snipers and fighters can see us ... but we cannot see them,” he said. (Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Giles Elgood)