Sirte, Libya - Libyan government forces fought their way, street by street, into the centre of Muammar Gaddafi's birthplace of Sirte on Wednesday after their commanders said the battle for the city was entering its final hours.
Taking Sirte would be of huge symbolic importance to Libya's new rulers because it would dispense with the biggest pocket of pro-Gaddafi resistance, and allow the interim government to switch its focus to preparing democratic elections.
The battle for the city has come at a high cost for civilians. They have been trapped by the fighting with dwindling supplies of food and water and no proper medical facilities to threat the wounded.
On Wednesday, the heavy artillery and rocket fire from Gaddafi loyalists that had been keeping fighters with the National Transitional Council pinned down on the outskirts of the city subsided, allowing the NTC forces to move in.
“More than half the city is under the control of the (anti-Gaddafi) rebels,” said Adel Al-Hasi, a local NTC commander. “In two days, God willing, Sirte will be free.”
The NTC advance took them towards Sirte's government quarter, a grid of expensively built hotels, villas and conference centres where Gaddafi used to host foreign leaders.
“We didn't yet take the centre of Sirte yet,” said another NTC commander in the city, Colonel Ahmed Al-Obeidi. “There are still clashes in the streets. They have a few mortars, not a lot ... They still have snipers.”
International aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding inside Sirte.
They say people are dying from wounds in the hospital because they cannot be treated properly, while residents are falling ill from malnutrition and drinking tainted water.
Robert Lanknau, an aid worker with the International Medical Corps, said he was working at a field hospital near Sirte that was each day treating up to 100 civilians who were fleeing from the bombardment.
“A lot of them seem to be shell-shocked,” he said. “The women especially. Down the road, mental health is going to be the biggest lingering health issue.”
Some people in Sirte have directed their anger at Nato, saying the alliance's warplanes were striking residential areas of the city.
A Nato spokesman said its aircraft had not carried out strikes on Sirte since the weekend and were sticking to their mandate to protect civilians.
On the Western edge of Sirte, a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was waiting for a break in the fighting, and agreement from the two sides, to send in a convoy of two trucks with supplies.
“We are concerned about the civilian population. Our priority is care of the wounded and sick. We want to make sure they have proper care,” said ICRC official Hishem Khadrawy.
“We are trying again to do another operation for relief. We have had dialogue with all parties in the conflict and they assure us of their support,” he said. - Reuters