Columns of fighters loyal to Libya's new leaders surged into Muammar Gaddafi's hometown Sirte on Friday, sparking battles with loyalists in three sectors including at the airport, commanders said.
Columns of National Transitional Council fighters backed by tanks launched the assault late morning on Sirte, 360 kilometres west of Tripoli, after a first attack the previous day was repulsed by loyalists, who set up sniper nests on rooftops.
An AFP reporter witnessed heavy fighting at the airport and two kilometres (about a mile) southeast of the city centre, with NTC forces firing anti-aircraft guns and heavy cannon within the city limits and Gaddafi forces responding with sniper fire and Grad rockets.
Senior military commander Salem Jear, also a member of Misrata Military Council, said NTC forces were nearing the centre of Sirte.
"We are advancing in from the west and the south towards the city centre," he said by telephone. "Our forces retreated strategically during the night but are now speeding towards the centre and some have already entered."
Field commander Hadi Saleq of the Karama (Generosity) Brigade, who has 160 men under his command and who himself has roots in Sirte, reported skirmishes on three fronts.
"The fighting is concentrated on September 1 Street, residential zone 2 in the city centre and around the airport," Saleq said.
There was no immediate indication off casualties, but the NTC said it had lost 11 fighters on Thursday, with 34 wounded. It added that 40 Gaddafi loyalists had been captured.
Field commander Saleq said they hoped that by the end of the day all of Sirte would be under their control. "We will rename September 1 Street as February 17 Street" after the start date of the revolution nearly seven months ago, Saleq said.