SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan transitional government forces said on Sunday they had captured landmark buildings in a thrust towards the centre of Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown Sirte, but were holding off an assault on its main square to allow civilians to escape the chaotic fighting.
Taking Sirte would bring Libya’s new rulers a big step closer to establishing control of the entire, sprawling North African country almost two months after they seized the capital Tripoli, but pro-Gaddafi snipers have slowed their advance.
“We have made good progress,” said Mahmoud Bayu, commander of the Shohada Al-Manatair brigade, to the south of Sirte.
“We have entered the Ouagadougou (conference) centre, there is some fighting going on, but it’s under our control.”
National Transitional Council (NTC) forces also wrested control of the main hospital, a Reuters witness said, capturing more than a dozen pro-Gaddafi fighters who had used the complex to fire mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
“We are trying to evacuate the sick and wounded,” said Salah Mustafa, a commander of the government forces. “Most of the Gaddafi militia fled, some of them have disguised themselves as doctors. We have to investigate.”
Some 15 Gaddafi loyalists were marched out of the hospital premises and one was punched in the back of the head when NTC forces found a picture of the deposed leader in his pocket.
Bayu said NTC forces had reached the main square of the Mediterranean coastal city of 75,000 people, but could not move in yet as they were waiting for civilians to leave the area.
A further important target for the new advance on Sirte, the university, had been seized overnight, NTC forces in the east of the city said, but they came under heavy fire there on Sunday morning and some fighters had fallen back.
“Last night, we were sleeping in the university and this morning we came under random strikes there,” said a fighter who had withdrawn from the position. “We have martyrs (dead) inside and we are trying to get them out.”
Two bodies lay in a nearby field hospital, one with his face blown off. They had been hit by fire from an anti-aircraft gun while trying to evacuate patients from a frontline hospital, their comrades said.
Lines of pick-up trucks mounted with heavy weaponry waited to move up to take on a sniper who was slowing their advance.
The prolonged struggle to vanquish Sirte and the other few remaining bastions of pro-Gaddafi loyalists has sidetracked NTC efforts to set up effective government over the sprawling North African country and rebuild oil production vital to its economy.
Sirte holds symbolic significance because Gaddafi, who ruled for 42 years, turned it from a fishing village into a second capital. He built opulent villas, hotels and conference halls to house the international summits he liked to stage there.
But taking Sirte carries risks for Libya’s new rulers. A drawn-out battle with many civilian casualties will breed hostility that will make it very difficult for the NTC to unite the country once the fighting is over.
Thousands of civilians have fled Sirte as fighting has intensified, describing increasingly desperate conditions for those still inside the seafront city. There is no electricity while drinking water and food are running out, and there is the stench of rotting corpses at the city’s hospital.
But Britain’s defence secretary told Reuters that NATO, which has carried out air strikes effectively on behalf of anti-Gaddafi forces over much of Libya’s civil war, had stayed within its U.N. mandate to protect civilians during the siege of Sirte.
“NATO has been extraordinarily careful in target selection. NATO has been very careful to minimise civilian casualties,” Liam Fox told Reuters in an interview in the Libyan town of Misrata — smashed up by pro-Gaddafi shelling during the war.
“NATO has stayed within its mandate throughout.”