By Rania El Gamal and Tim Gaynor
By Rania El Gamal and Tim Gaynor
October 19, 2011, SIRTE, Libya (Reuters)
Libyan interim government fighters attempted to relaunch their offensive on the besieged town of Sirte on Wednesday after being pushed back by die-hard Muammar Gaddafi loyalists holed up in the deposed leader’s hometown.
Hundreds of National Transitional Council (NTC) troops have surrounded the Mediterranean coastal town for weeks in a chaotic struggle to snuff out the last pocket of resistance against the revolution that ended Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.
Grad rockets, artillery and tank fire rained down on Gaddafi positions in the centre of the town.
Asked about the government force’s slow progress in taking Sirte, one NTC fighter at the front said: “All we can think of is catching the rat Gaddafi. We are taking it slowly, step by step. We have been patient for 42 years.”
NTC fighters have deployed an arsenal of homemade weapons. On Wednesday a bulldozer arrived at the front retrofitted with armour and resembling a small ship, with a pointed prow and port holes. On its front was mounted a tank turret and the sides were crafted from concrete sandwiched between steel plate.
A man wearing a black ship’s captain’s hat with gold braid sat atop the contraption as it manoeuvred into place, ploughing into a lamp-post in the process.
Government fighters shouted “Allahu Akbar” as it made its lumbering process towards make-shift barricades of vehicles and shipping containers put up by Gaddafi loyalists.
The NTC’s failure to seize Sirte, nearly two months since capturing Tripoli, has raised questions about its ability to exert its authority over the entire country and has postponed the launch of its promised democracy programme.
On Monday NTC forces captured the other main Gaddafi stronghold, the desert town of Bani Walid, where the ousted leader’s loyalists had put up resistance for two months.
NTC forces were poised a few days ago to declare victory in Sirte, but on Tuesday they were being forced to retreat in some places under intense fire.
At the eastern end of Sirte’s seafront on Tuesday a Reuters reporter saw the spot where an hour earlier mortars had landed in a cluster of NTC fighters. Thirteen were killed in the incident, witnesses said. Blood from one of the victims stained the steps of a nearby house.
In several places in the city, locations that a day earlier were firmly under the control of anti-Gaddafi fighters were too dangerous to access because of fire coming in from loyalists.
The NTC offensive — by mostly amateur fighters — has been hampered by a lack of coordination. Units which converged on Sirte from Benghazi in eastern Libya and Misrata to the west have lost men when they fired at each other by mistake.
Gaddafi, wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of ordering the killing of civilians, is in hiding, possibly deep in Libya’s Sahara desert.
Even so, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed “Libya’s victory” during a visit to Tripoli on Tuesday.
Clinton was the most senior U.S. official to come to Tripoli since Gaddafi’s 42-year rule ended in August. Her visit was marked by tight security, reflecting worries that Libya’s new rulers have yet to establish full control over the country.
After meeting Libya’s de facto prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, she spoke of the need to impose central control over the heavily armed regional militias that emerged from the war.
“We are encouraged by the commitment of the National Transitional Council (NTC) to take the steps necessary to bring the country together,” Clinton said.
The United States took part in the NATO bombing campaign that helped Libya’s rebels take power, although its aircraft largely played a secondary role to those of Britain and France.
“I am proud to stand here on the soil of a free Tripoli and on behalf of the American people I congratulate Libya,” Clinton said. “This is Libya’s moment, this is Libya’s victory, the future belongs to you.”