By Joseph Logan and Sherine El Madany
By Joseph Logan and Sherine El Madany
September 29, 2011, SIRTE (Reuters)
Libya’s new rulers said on Wednesday they believed fugitive ex-leader Muammar Gaddafi was being shielded by nomadic tribesmen in the desert near the Algerian border, while his followers fend off assaults on his hometown.
Intense sniper and artillery fire from pro-Gaddafi fighters has so far prevented National Transitional Council (NTC) forces from taking Sirte despite more than two weeks of fighting and two full-on assaults.
One of the last two bastions of support for the ousted strongman, it has withstood a siege by NTC fighters hitting it with tank and rocket fire as well as NATO airstrikes.
The United Nations and international aid agencies are worried over conditions for civilians trapped inside.
More than a month since NTC fighters captured the capital Tripoli, Gaddafi remains defiantly on the run pledging to lead a campaign of armed resistance against the new leaders.
Gaddafi himself could be holed up near the western town of Ghadames — near the Algerian border — under the protection of Tuareg tribesmen, a senior NTC military official said.
“There has been a fight between Tuareg tribesmen who are loyal to Gaddafi and Arabs living there (in the south). We are negotiating. The Gaddafi search is taking a different course,” Hisham Buhagiar told Reuters, without elaborating.
Many Tuaregs, nomads who roam the desert spanning the borders of Libya and its neighbours, have backed Gaddafi since he supported their rebellions against the governments of Mali and Niger in the 1970s and allowed them to settle in Libya.
Buhagiar said Gaddafi’s most politically-prominent son, Saif al-Islam, was in the other final loyalist holdout, Bani Walid, and that another influential son, Mutassem, was in Sirte.
STRUGGLE FOR SIRTE
Lack of coordination and divisions at the front have been hampering NTC attempts to capture Sirte and Bani Walid.
Fighting continued on separate eastern and western fronts at Sirte on Wednesday and commanders said they were planning to try to join the two fronts together and take the city’s airport.
“There is progress toward the coastal road and the airport…. The plan is for various brigades to invade from other directions,” NTC fighter Amran al-Oweiwi said.
Street-fighting was under way at a roundabout 2 km (1.5 miles) east of the town centre, where anti-Gaddafi fighters were pinned down for a third day by sniper and artillery fire.
As NATO planes circled overhead, NTC forces moved five tanks to the front but were immediately met with Grad rockets fired from inside the town, missing the tanks by only yards.
A Reuters crew at the scene saw several NTC fighters flee the frontline under heavy fire while others stood their ground.
“If I die, I’ll die proud,” one fighter shouted as he left a group of hiding comrades and ran back to the front.
“At the buildings! At the buildings!” an NTC commander ordered fighters manning the tanks, in an apparent attempt to target snipers, as thick black smoke rose over the town.
On the western front, fighters leapt into pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns and anti-aircraft guns and raced in the direction of the airport.
A commander leading the attack on Sirte said on Tuesday he was in talks with elders inside the city about a truce, but the head of an anti-Gaddafi unit on the east rejected negotiations.
In Tripoli, a senior NTC officer said his fighters, on entering Sirte port two days ago, had found and seized a helicopter hidden under camouflage that appeared to have been made ready for a swift departure. He told Reuters he suspected the helicopter was assigned for the use of a senior official of the ousted Gaddafi government, possibly one of Gaddafi’s sons.
GADDAFI CLAN STILL VOCAL
As the fighting continues, humanitarian organisations are sounding the alarm about the possibility of civilian casualties in the town. Gaddafi’s spokesman has said NATO airstrikes and NTC shelling are killing civilians.
NATO and the NTC deny that. They say Gaddafi loyalists are using civilians inside Sirte as human shields and have kidnapped and executed those they believe to be NTC supporters.
“Our main worry is the people being displaced because of the fighting,” said Jafar Vishtawi, a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), near Sirte.
Civilians fleeing the town have said there is no power, little water and that the local population is terrified.
Taking the last two Gaddafi strongholds and finding the toppled leader would bring the NTC closer to establishing their credibility as the country’s new rulers.
A Syria-based television station that has been broadcasting audio speeches by Gaddafi, reported on Tuesday that Gaddafi had addressed his supporters and urged them to fight in a speech broadcast on a local radio station in Bani Walid. The report by Arrai television could not be independently verfied.
Arrai also broadcast footage of what it said was Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, dated September 20, rallying his forces at an unidentified location.
“This land is the land of your forefathers. Don’t hand it over,” Saif al-Islam, shouted to a crowd of followers.
In neighbouring Algeria, the government ordered members of Gaddafi’s family in exile there to stay out of politics after Gaddafi’s daughter Aisha angered the NTC by telling the media her father was still fighting to hold on to power.
Aisha Gaddafi and two of her brothers fled to Algeria in August. Another son fled to Niger. One son was reported killed in the conflict and three sons are at large.