Libya fighters take airport in pro-Khadafy city
But loyalists still keep control in other key cities
TRIPOLI, Libya - Facing little resistance, revolutionary fighters yesterday captured the airport and other parts of a southern desert city that is one of the last remaining strongholds of Moammar Khadafy’s forces, even as military offensives stalled to the north.
The capture of Sabha would be a welcome victory for Libya’s new rulers, who have struggled to rout forces loyal to Khadafy a month after sweeping into Tripoli and forcing the ousted leader into hiding. He has not been found.
A push to capture Khadafy’s hometown of Surt and the mountain enclave of Bani Walid has stalled as well-armed forces loyal to the fugitive leader fight back fiercely with rockets and other heavy weaponry. Libya’s new rulers have frequently reported gains only to find their forces beaten back.
A force of three southern brigades pushed its way yesterday into Sabha, deep in the Sahara.
“Our flags are waving there over the airport and other parts of Sabha,’’ Colonel Ahmed Bani, the military spokesman for the transitional government, told reporters in Tripoli.
The airport is about 4 miles from the center of Sabha, 400 miles south of Tripoli.
Hassan Moussa Tabawi, a spokesman of three southern brigades that led the takeover of Sabha, said revolutionary forces have control of most of the city but still face pockets of resistance in a few central neighborhoods occupied by Khadafy loyalists and a pro-Khadafy tribe.
“The airport is totally secure and many residential neighborhoods have raised the liberation flag,’’ he said in a telephone interview from Sabha. The two sides clashed on Sunday night, but he said the anti-Khadafy fighters planned to take the rest of the city this morning.
Before the arrival of the new government’s forces, he said, Sabha residents tried to rise up several times over the past seven months but were besieged by Khadafy troops.
“People were very happy to see us,’’ Tabawi said.
Salam Kara, the Benghazi-based spokesman for Sabha’s local council, said revolutionary forces also seized an old fort as well as a convention center and a hospital inside the city.
“It is a great achievement by the rebels from all over the south and led by the rebels from inside of Sabha,’’ he said. “The resistance is not strong because Sabha’s rebels have been holding protests for a long time and just needed help from outside.’’
Revolutionary forces have been sweeping through isolated towns in the rocky wasteland south of the Mediterranean coastal area where most of Libya’s population of more than 6 million live, in a bid to establish complete control.
Sabha could become a rallying point.
Tripoli’s fall in late August - after a six-month civil war with NATO airstrikes aiding the rebels - marked the collapse of Khadafy’s nearly 42-year rule, but hopes that remaining pockets of resistance would be captured quickly were dashed when several offensives were repelled by diehard Khadafy loyalists.
Many also have speculated that the leader and his sons and other allies are hiding in the areas still under their control, some suggesting Khadafy could be in the desert south of Sabha.
Sporadic battles also broke out over Khadafy’s hometown of Surt and the mountain enclave of Bani Walid.
In Surt, the two sides traded rocket and gunfire, sending up clouds of white smoke, before the fighting ebbed in the afternoon in what has become a daily pattern - the fighters push into the city in the morning but withdraw at night, forcing them to battle their way in each day.
“We can’t stay at night in the city because Khadafy cut the electricity and they know their own city,’’ revolutionary fighter Lotfi al-Amin said. “We stay outside and then push in.’’
Al-Amin, a 37-year-old former postal worker who is now the head of a sniper unit, said the fighters also were concerned about a number of families from the city of Misrata who had been living in a Surt neighborhood and were trapped.
He said Khadafy’s forces surrounded the neighborhood and killed five boys they kidnapped.
“The first thing we have to do is get the Misrata families out; then we can use all the firepower we have,’’ he said.
Pro-Khadafy fighters also fired antiaircraft guns at revolutionary forces holding the northern gate of Bani Walid, another loyalist stronghold, for a second day yesterday, as frustration with weeks of halting advances grows among the former rebel ranks.
The military forces of the National Transitional Council, Libya’s interim government, pulled away from Bani Walid to regroup and reinforce for a new assault.