Desperate residents fled Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown Sirte on Friday as fighters of Libya’s interim government probed the city’s eastern outskirts in anticipation of a final assault on one of the fallen leader’s two remaining bastions.
A commander of National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters near Sirte said pro-Gaddafi forces were targeting residents even as they fled, with a fighter killed and a packed family car destroyed when their convoy washit.
NATO said it was nearing the “final phase” of its air war in Libya, a day after warplanes struck just one target in an intense bombing campaign that has lasted six months.
And a commander of the new regime said a captured general loyal to Gaddafi had said the fugitive Libyan leader was secretly moving around in the southern desert.
One month to the day since Gaddafi’s compound fell to rebels in Tripoli, the campaign to take Sirte and the ex-Libyan leader’s other principal remaining bastion of Bani Walid was on hold for another day.
But commanders and fighters said they had probed the city’s eastern outskirts without resistance.
“Our fighters are in control of the eastern gate of Sirte,” commander Ahmed Zlitni from the operations centre told AFP.
“They are two kilometres ahead of the gate and holding positions there. Technically we can say that we entered Sirte from the east,” Zlitni said, adding that the fighters “did not face any resistance” when they crossed.
“Three to four brigades have entered through the eastern gate,” confirmed commander Mohammed al-Marimi.
Asked why NTC fighters were delaying a final assault on Sirte, commander Osama Muttawa Swehly told AFP: “We’re trying to get the families out.
“We are averaging between 400 to 500 cars a day. We are basically trying to starve (the Gaddafi forces) out.”
He said one escape convoy had come under fire from anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms.
“One fighter was killed and one family car was destroyed,” he said, with an unknown number of occupants also presumably killed.
“We are giving the families every chance to get out. Once that stream turns into a trickle then stops, then it will be time to act,” he added.
Meanwhile, NTC officials announced fresh talks on Saturday on forming an interim government after a previous round failed last weekend.
One official insisted the meeting would be “decisive” and that there would be “agreement on the new government lineup”.
When rebel fighters stormed and captured Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya headquarters on August 23, they found no trace of the strongman, who has since made several broadcasts claiming he is still in Libya.
While the country’s new authorities do not know where he is, they are focused on taking Sirte and Bani Walid, two places where some think he might be.
But reports also emerged that he may be in the south.
“General Belgasem al-Abaaj, who we captured on Monday, said that Gaddafi had contacted him by phone about 10 days ago, and that he was moving secretly between (the oases towns of) Sabha and Ghat,” an NTC commander, Mohammed Barka Wardugu, told AFP.
Abaaj had said that Gaddafi “is helped by Nigerian and Chadian mercenaries who know the desert routes”, added Wardugu, spokesman for the Desert Shield Brigade.
Earlier this week, NTC forces announced they had captured Sabha, southern Libya’s largest city, but the situation in Ghat, a remote town close to the Algerian border, remains unclear.
In recent days, new regime forces have also claimed full control over all three main towns of the Al-Jufra oasis, north of Sabha, leaving Gaddafi loyalists in Sirte and Bani Walid effectively cut off from any line of escape to the south.
While a full-scale assault on Bani Walid was on hold Friday, an AFP correspondent with NTC fighters a few kilometres outside the town said clashes had erupted there early in the day.
In other developments, the UN atomic agency confirmed the existence of raw uranium in Libya after US news channel CNN reported that new regime forces had found potentially radioactive material.
International Atomic Energy Agency spokeswoman Gill Tudor said the uranium, stored by the Gaddafi regime, had been declared to the agency and that it hoped to examine the material “once the situation in the country stabilises”.
French oil giant Total meanwhile announced it would restart production from an offshore oil platform off Libya within days, making it the first major to return to work since the fall of Gaddafi.