Libyan government forces fired rounds of heavy artillery at Muammar Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte on Friday as they launched their largest assault so far to capture the last major bastion of support for the deposed leader.
Taking the coastal town would be an important symbolic trophy for Libya’s new rulers, and would bring them closer to finally gaining control of the whole country almost two months since their fighters seized the capital Tripoli.
Forces loyal to the ruling National Transitional Council are under pressure to intensify their advance but heavy resistance and gunfire by Gaddafi loyalists have prevented them from taking the city for weeks.
Thousands of civilians have fled Sirte as fighting intensified, describing an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation.
Many were caught off guard by Friday’s assault and fled in panic as explosions boomed around the city. “There are strong strikes in all directions. Today we will finish it. God willing today we will capture Sirte,” said Colonel Ahmed El-Obeidi, an NTC commander.
Gaddafi loyalists who pulled back to Sirte when they lost control of other cities are putting up fierce resistance.
They have been mainly using sniper fire and rocket-propelled grenades to prevent NTC forces from entering the city centre.
At a field hospital several kilometres west of Sirte dozens of ambulances brought in at least 50 fighters and civilians wounded in the fighting. Most were seriously wounded.
A Sirte resident who gave his name as Abdel Nasser said: “Last night there was heavy random firing and shelling. We had a hundred narrow escapes. Conditions are tragic. You can smell the rotting corpses at the hospital.”