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Libyans flee Khadafy’s hometown, now under siege

Rebels also claim to gain ground in southern city

Anti-Khadafy forces fired howitzers east of Surt yesterday. Some officials from Khadafy’s regime, as well as one of the ousted dictator’s sons, have fled to Niger. Anti-Khadafy forces fired howitzers east of Surt yesterday. Some officials from Khadafy’s regime, as well as one of the ousted dictator’s sons, have fled to Niger. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)
By Ryan Lucas
Associated Press / September 21, 2011

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SURT, Libya - Families in pickup trucks stacked with mattresses and jugs of water fled Moammar Khadafy’s hometown of Surt yesterday ahead of an expected new push by revolutionary forces to seize the city, and the anti-Khadafy forces claimed progress in the battle for a city in the remote southern desert.

A commander of the new government’s forces said late yesterday that they were in control of most of the Khadafy desert stronghold of Sabha after a day of fighting. The commander, Bashir Ahwaz, said most of the tribesmen loyal to Khadafy fled the city instead of putting up a fight, but three of his men and 19 pro-Khadafy tribesmen were killed.

He said it would take another week for his forces to take control of all of Libya’s southern desert and its borders with Algeria and Niger. Several groups of officials from Khadafy’s regime, as well as one of the ousted dictator’s sons, have fled to Niger.

Speaking at a high-level UN meeting yesterday, President Obama warned that there would be difficult days ahead in Libya, as forces loyal to Khadafy make a fierce stand and the country’s provisional leadership grapples with the complex task of setting up a new government. But Obama said it was clear that Libya was now in the hands of its people.

“Credit for the liberation of Libya belongs to the people of Libya,’’ Obama said. “It was Libyan men and women and children who took to the streets in peaceful protest, who faced down the tanks and endured the snipers’ bullets. It was Libyan fighters, often outgunned and outnumbered, who fought pitched battles, town-by-town, block-by-block.’’

The United Nations has recognized the interim Libyan government, the National Transitional Council, with a UN seat. Obama announced yesterday that the US ambassador was heading back to Tripoli to lead a newly reopened US embassy there.

“This is how the international community should work in the 21st century - more nations bearing the responsibility and the costs of meeting global challenges,’’ Obama said. To the Libyan people, he added: “This is your chance. And today the world is saying, with one unmistakable voice, we will stand with you.’’

Obama also met with the National Transitional Council’s chairman, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil. Obama advisers say they are confident Jalil is heeding the call to make sure the new government in Libya is fair and inclusive.

Meanwhile, Khadafy tried to rally supporters from hiding yesterday, saying in an audio recording that his regime is still alive.

Earlier, residents fleeing Surt said they had been living under a state of siege with Khadafy’s forces preventing them from leaving, while living conditions deteriorated and the city came under constant rocket fire and NATO bombardment.

“I tried to leave earlier with my family, but Khadafy’s forces wouldn’t let me,’’ said Abdullah Mohammed, a 34-year-old computer engineer traveling with his wife, two daughters, and son. “We managed to run away at dawn by taking back roads out of the city.’’

Youssef Ramadan, 35, said there has been no power since Aug. 20, a day before revolutionary forces swept into the capital, Tripoli, and forced Khadafy into hiding.

“There’s no fuel and food is running low,’’ he said. “A lot of civilians are stuck in their houses because of the fighting.’’ Ramadan, who was taking his wife, 2-year-old daughter, 7-year-old son, brother, and mother out of the city of about 100,000 people, said regime forces were using houses, schools, and hospitals to store ammunition.

Tripoli fell to Khadafy opponents in late August after a six-month civil war with NATO airstrikes aiding the rebels - marking the collapse of Khadafy’s nearly 42-year rule.

Khadafy ridiculed the claims from his hiding place.

“What is happening in Libya is a charade gaining its legitimacy through airstrikes that will not last forever,’’ he said in the statement broadcast on the Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become his mouthpiece. “It’s hard to bring down this regime because it represents millions of Libyans.’’

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