SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - People wounded in fighting in Libya’s besieged city of Sirte are dying on the operating table because fuel for the hospital generator has run out, medical workers fleeing a worsening humanitarian crisis in the city said on Sunday.
The birth-place of deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, Sirte is one of two towns still holding out against the country’s new rulers and civilians are caught in the middle of fierce fighting now in its third week.
The interim government, or National Transitional Council (NTC), declared a two-day truce to allow civilians to escape, but people emerging from the city said they knew nothing of the ceasefire, and that the shooting had not stopped.
“Doctors start operating, then the power goes. They have a few litres of fuel for the generators, then the lights go out when they operate,” said a man who gave his name as Al-Sadiq, who said he ran the dialysis unit at Sirte’s main hospital.
“I saw a child of 14 die on the operating table because the power went out during the operation,” he told Reuters on the western outskirts of the city.
Aid workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who brought medical supplies into Sirte on Saturday could not reach the hospital because of shooting.
That hospital has now become the focus of concerns about the humanitarian crisis in the city, with residents describing how doctors are trying to treat civilians injured in the fighting without adequate supplies.
“It’s a catastrophe. Patients are dying every day for need of oxygen,” said Mohammed Shnaq, a biochemist at the hospital who fled early on Sunday during a lull in the shooting.
He said private pharmacies in Sirte handed over their supplies to the hospital after its own stocks ran out a week ago, but these were now running out too.
Libyans ended Gaddafi’s 42-year rule in August when rebel fighters stormed the capital. Gaddafi and several of his sons are still at large, and his supporters hold Sirte and a second town of Bani Walid, south of Tripoli.
Gaddafi’s supporters are too weak to re-gain power, but their resistance is frustrating the new rulers’ efforts to start building the post-Gaddafi Libya.
While it needs to stamp out the last resistance swiftly, the NTC does not want to use indiscriminate shelling. The resulting casualties would hurt its standing and make it even harder to govern Libya’s fractious tribes and regions.
Gaddafi loyalists and some civilians have blamed NATO air strikes and shelling by anti-Gaddafi forces for killing civilians in Sirte.
Both NATO and the NTC deny that and say it is the Gaddafi loyalists who are endangering civilians by using them as human shields.
Khalid Ahmed, who fled the city early on Sunday, said the residential area where he lives in the centre of Sirte came under heavy artillery fire on Saturday, despite the declaration of a truce.
“The reason there is shooting in the city centre is that Gaddafi militia has positioned artillery in the buildings where civilians live. The children are terrified and they are screaming all the time.”
He said he was able to get out by borrowing money to buy black-market fuel. He said the rate in Sirte now was 600 dinars, or about $450, for 20 litres of fuel.
One pickup truck loaded down with television sets and mattresses and with children in the back could not make it out of the city under its own steam, so it was towed behind another vehicle.
Over on the eastern edge of Sirte, more families were heading out of the city. A woman called Umn-ali, in a car with her husband, three children, her mother and brother, said pro-Gaddafi forces had told them for weeks it was not safe to leave.
They snuck out of the city just after dawn on Sunday, when many people were at morning prayers and the streets were empty.
“Yesterday there was a lot of fighting. The problem is that it is random. Everybody is hitting us. Why? We are just innocent people,” she said.
“There are a lot of families still inside. We had to get out because of the kids. If it was just us we would not have cared about dying there.”
An NTC field commander said that once the two-day truce runs out later on Sunday, they would renew their attacks and move into the centre of Sirte.
This may be optimistic: previous attempts to break through have been beaten back by Gaddafi loyalists.
A Reuters reporter saw pick-up trucks with heavy weapons mounted on the back, and vehicles carrying ammunition, heading towards the front line.
“Today is the last ultimatum. This has to be finalised. As long as we are staying outside, Gaddafi people are still inside,” said the commander, who gave only his first name, Mohammed.
Doctors at a field hospital east of Sirte said four NTC fighters were killed on Sunday in “friendly fire” incidents — testament to the chaotic conduct of the fighting that has hampered the anti-Gaddafi forces.
Moussa Ibrahim, the fugitive spokesman for Muammar Gaddafi and a native of Sirte, telephoned a Syria-based television channel late on Saturday.
“Tomorrow we expect a strong attack from several points of Sirte but we are ready,” Ibrahim told the Arrai station.
Gaddafi himself is the subject of an international arrest warrant and has been abandoned by nearly all of his allies abroad. But he received a vote of support from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
“The Libyans are resisting the invasion and aggression. I ask God to protect the life of our brother Muammar Gaddafi. They’re hunting him down to kill him,” Chavez said.
“No one knows where Gaddafi is, I think he went off to the desert ... to lead the resistance. What else can he do?”