Libyan fighters capture key site
SURT, Libya - Libya’s revolutionary forces seized a convention center yesterday that had served as a key base for fighters loyal to Moammar Khadafy in the fugitive leader’s hometown, as they squeezed remaining regime loyalists in the besieged coastal city.
Khadafy loyalists in Surt are now fighting in an ever-shrinking defensive perimeter consisting only of a Khadafy palace complex, some residential buildings, and a hotel in the city center. The revolutionary forces now control the University of Surt on the southern outskirts.
The Ouagadougou Convention Center, an ornate complex that Khadafy frequently used for international summits, lay in ruins. Throughout the siege, Khadafy fighters used the walled complex as a base and stronghold. From there they were able to dominate surrounding neighborhoods and assault revolutionaries trying to enter Surt.
The continued resistance in Surt, the most important remaining stronghold of Khadafy supporters, more than six weeks after anti-Khadafy fighters seized the capital has stalled efforts by Libya’s new leaders to set a timetable for elections and move forward with a transition to democracy.
Khadafy supporters also hold the inland enclave of Bani Walid, where revolutionary forces also reported key gains after weeks of faltering advances that resulted in part from the challenging terrain of desert hills and steep valleys. Bani Walid is believed to be harboring high-level figures in the old regime.
The transitional leadership has said it will declare liberation after Surt’s capture because that will mean it holds all of the seaports and harbors in the oil-rich Mediterranean coastal country.
Libya’s de facto leader, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the governing National Transitional Council, said yesterday that anti-Khadafy fighters have made huge gains in Surt and Bani Walid.
“I do believe, God willing, that the liberation of these cities will happen within this week,’’ Abdul-Jalil told reporters in Tripoli.
He said that revolutionary forces in Surt have punched their way into the city center in fierce fighting and are now cleaning out pockets of resistance.
In Bani Walid, advancing fighters drove Khadafy forces out of the airport, said Abdullah Kenshil, who led failed talks for the revolutionaries in search of a peaceful surrender of the city.
“The takeover of Bani Walid is imminent,’’ he said. “The fighters are only one kilometer from the heart of Bani Walid.’’
He claimed that Khadafy’s son Seif al-Islam was seen on Saturday distributing cash to his loyalists in Bani Walid.
Located 250 miles southeast of Tripoli, Surt is key to the physical unity of the nation of some 6 million people, since it lies roughly in the center of the coastal plain where most Libyans live, blocking the easiest routes between east and west.
After a three-week siege from the outskirts, revolutionary forces launched an all-out assault on Surt on Friday, pounding the city with tank shells, field cannons, rockets, and heavy machine guns. Loyalists have put up fierce resistance, and fired back with sniper rifles, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades.
At Ibn Sina Hospital, scores of wounded civilians crowded the corridors, lying on gurneys and floors to protect them from the shelling and gunfire. There was no electricity or water, and a handful of medical students and nurses were the only medical staff.
Also yesterday, Nuri Berruien, chairman of the state-run National Oil Corp., said Libya’s oil production stands at about 25 percent of its prewar levels but could return to an output of 1.6 million barrels per day in about 15 months.
Oil officials have struggled to get operation back on line to earn much-needed revenues as the country tries to rebuild.