SIRTE, Libya (AP) — With NATO jets roaring overhead, revolutionary forces fought their way into Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown Saturday in the first significant push into the stubborn stronghold in about a week.
Libya’s new leaders also tried to move on the political front, promising to announce in the coming week a new interim government that it hopes will help unite the country. However, disagreements remain about what the Cabinet should look like.
The National Transitional Council led the rebellion that forced Gadhafi into hiding and has taken over the leadership of the oil-rich North African nation even as it continues to fight forces still loyal to the fugitive leader.
The NTC-appointed prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, sought support from leaders at the United Nations on Saturday, telling them that "a new Libya is coming to life" as a nation committed to democracy, equality and reintegration into the international community. He said the council was committed to drafting a constitution that would be put to the Libyans for a referendum.
More than a month after seizing Tripoli and effectively ending Gadhafi’s rule, revolutionary forces have been unable to rout well-armed Gadhafi loyalists from strongholds in his hometown of Sirte, Bani Walid and some southern enclaves. Taking the cities is key for Libya’s new leaders to extend their control over the large desert nation.
Explosions rocked Sirte throughout the day as fighters pushing in on four roads came under heavy fire from loyalist snipers and artillery guns. Along the city’s main thoroughfare, they faced close-range gunfights with loyalists hiding in apartment buildings and throwing hand grenades at them from windows.
Moftah Mohammed, 28, said snipers shot two of his friends as they advanced to fire a rocket-propelled grenade on a loyalist truck. When others approached to help the wounded, Gadhafi supporters opened fire and hurled hand grenades, injuring two more.
By evening, however, the fighters had pushed east along the city’s main thoroughfare into its urban center, overrunning a TV station and pushing loyalists farther back. NATO warplanes patrolled overhead during the fighting, and revolutionary commanders said airstrikes took out some loyalist tanks, although that could not be confirmed immediately.
Walls along the town’s main boulevard were pockmarked from heavy caliber machine-gun rounds, and the charred metal hulks of cars lined the streets in front of shuttered shops, some of which had been torched.
Gaping holes marred the walls of the TV building, and two of the Gadhafi regime’s green flags still flew from the roof. Two tanks sat nearby, and rebel trucks with mounted machine guns raced forward while blasting at loyalist positions. In front of a convenience store, a group of men fired a half dozen mortars, yelling "God is great!" after each one flew into the distance.
Most of the fighters came from the western city of Misrata, which saw some of the fiercest fighting in the civil war that erupted after Libyans rose up against Gadhafi in mid-February. For the assault on Sirte, they have used many of the urban battle tactics developed in the defense of their own city, including blocking the road with shipping containers and filling them with sand so they couldn’t be moved.
"When we fought in Misrata it was all new to us," said Adnan al-Zredi, 25, a former clothing store clerk who manned an anti-aircraft gun on the back of a truck. "Now we’re fine in war. We know exactly what to do."
Some fighters said Gadhafi forces in the city had adopted similar tactics, building a similar barricade of shipping containers and sand elsewhere in the city. "They got some ideas from us," fighter Abdel-Aziz Salim said proudly.
He spoke from an elementary school on the city’s edge that had been transformed into a military staging ground. Nearby, fighters pounded huge bullets into ammunition belts and armed rocket-propelled grenades before heading back to the front.
Sirte is the Libyan city most associated with Gadhafi. Revolutionary fighters tried to push into the city last weekend but were driven back in fighting that killed at least 25 and wounded dozens. They pulled back to regroup and let civilians leave the area, although the two sides exchanged fire daily.
In the meantime, more than 1,300 families have left the city, fighters said. A few dozen waiting at a checkpoint outside the city on Saturday described rapidly deteriorating conditions. Many had been clustered in basements, eating once a day and drinking water from nearby wells or water tanks. Some said their children had gotten diarrhea from the water.
Over the last week, fighters said they wouldn’t attack until all the city’s civilians were out. In the end, they decided to advance Saturday because they feared many families from Misrata that were stuck in the city were in danger, said a brigade commander, Mohammed al-Sugatri.
"There are lots of people from Misrata who are stuck in the city living in basements. They have no food or water and many of their children are sick so we had no choice but to attack," he said.
It remains unclear how many civilians remain in the city and how many of them remain loyal to Gadhafi and his forces.
At a small mosque outside town that has been converted into a field hospital, Dr. Mahmoud Khlef said six revolutionary fighters were killed Saturday and close to 80 wounded, most of them by shrapnel from rocket-propelled grenades.
Members of the National Transitional Council have been struggling to form a new interim government amid political infighting over everything from which cities should be represented and how many Cabinet ministers there should be. That has raised concerns that the former rebels will splinter into rival factions now that they no longer have the ouster of Gadhafi as a common cause.
NTC chief Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, speaking to reporters in Benghazi after attending the U.N. General Assembly in New York, acknowledged differences but said a new government would be named next week to guide the country until formal elections can be held.
"This is the crisis management phase and it should be led by people who are efficient, even if they have to be from the same city, until the liberation of the country and until the constitution is established," he said. "Then they can choose a government that they want."
In the capital, Tripoli, a series of explosions went off at a military storage warehouse on a Libyan naval base near the harbor Saturday afternoon and heavy black smoke poured out of the facility, although no injuries were reported. A revolutionary command spokesman, Abdel-Rahman Busin, said it was an accident caused by either an electrical problem or the improper storage of ammunition.