Libyan rebel fighters struggle to take Khadafy’s hometown
SURT, Libya - Revolutionary fighters struggled to make gains in an assault into Khadafy’s hometown yesterday with bloody street-by-street battles against loyalist forces fiercely defending the most symbolic of the shattered regime’s remaining strongholds.
The fresh attack into the Mediterranean coastal city of Surt contrasted with a stalemate in the mountain enclave of Bani Walid where demoralized anti-Khadafy forces tried to regroup after being beaten back by loyalist snipers and gunners holding strategic high ground.
Intense resistance has stalled forces of Libya’s new leadership trying to crush the dug-in fighters loyal to Khadafy, weeks after the former rebels swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21 and pushed the country’s leader out of power and into hiding.
Surt and Bani Walid are the main holdouts of backers of the old regime in Libya’s coastal plain, but smaller ones remain in the deserts of the center of the country - and another major stronghold, Sabha, lies in the deep south.
The resistance has raised fears of a protracted insurgency of the sort that has played out in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as the transitional government tries to establish its authority and move toward eventual elections.
A military spokesman for the transitional government said revolutionaries do not know Khadafy’s location. Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani pointed to the still uncollected bounty of nearly $2 million that the leadership has put on the fugitive leader’s head, saying, “Up to now we don’t have any certain information.’’
Columns of black smoke rose over Surt, as revolutionary fighters backed by heavy machine guns and rockets tried to push through crowded residential areas in the city. They claimed to have gained less than a mile into the city, along the coastal highway leading in from the west.
The forces were met by a rain of gunfire, rockets, and mortar shells. A field hospital set up outside Surt at a gas station filled with wounded fighters, including some from a convoy hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Twenty-four anti-Khadafy fighters were killed and 54 wounded in the day’s battles, the military council from the nearby city of Misurata reported.
Khadafy’s spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, vowed, “We have the ability to continue this resistance for months,’’ in a phone call Friday to Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become the mouthpiece for the former regime.
The conditions inside Surt were reportedly growing increasingly dire for those caught in the crossfire. Nouri Abu Bakr, a 42-year-old teacher fleeing the city, said there is no electricity or medicine, and food supplies are nearly exhausted.
Hassan Dourai, Surt representative in the new government’s interim government, said fighters reported seeing one of Khadafy’s sons, Muatassim, shortly before the offensives began Friday, but he has not been spotted since the battles intensified. The whereabouts of Khadafy and several of his sons remain unknown. Other family members have fled to neighboring Algeria and Niger.
Most of the hundreds of fighters assaulting Surt are from Misurata, a city to the northwest along the coast that held out for weeks against a brutal Khadafy siege during the civil war. Revolutionary commanders were trying to open a second front into Surt, from the east.
They said they were trying to reach a surrender deal with elders in most of the Harawa region, about 50 miles east of Surt, to open a possible new pathway - but fighting was reported in the area yesterday, suggesting efforts were stalled.
The other stronghold of Bani Walid, 150 miles east of Surt, has proven even more difficult for the forces of the new regime. The fighters withdrew Friday after facing withering sniper fire and shelling from loyalist units.
The loyalists hold the ridges overlooking a desert valley called Wadi Zeitoun that divides the city between northern and southern sections.