NATO attacks pro-Gaddafi forces near hometown Sirte
Clashes between NTC forces and Gaddafi loyalists continue. Gaddafi’s hideout remains a mystery even after opposition forces captured the capital of Tripoli. (Photo: Kürşat Bayhan)
NATO turned its attention to the region around Muammar Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte and his largest remaining stronghold, launching air strikes targeting loyalist forces battling advancing Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) troops.
The air strikes came a day after fierce clashes erupted in the Libyan capital. NTC troops said pro-Gaddafi forces were still shelling the airport and sporadic shooting was reported elsewhere, but the streets of Tripoli were relatively calm on Friday.
The military alliance said that NATO warplanes targeted 29 vehicles mounted with weapons near the city, which is 250 miles (400 kilometers) east of the Libyan capital of Tripoli. NTC forces are trying to occupy Sirte but expect fierce resistance from tribesman and townspeople loyal to Gaddafi.
The NTC leadership, apparently trying to avoid the bloodshed that occurred in the battle for Tripoli, is working behind the scenes to secure the peaceful surrender of Sirte, officials said.
But the latest NATO air strikes on loyalist vehicles defending Sirte appeared aimed at paving the way for an NTC advance if a negotiated settlement proves impossible.
In London, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox said some elements of the Gaddafi's regime were in Sirte “where they are still continuing to wage war on the people of Libya.” He said NATO would continue to strike at the Gaddafi forces' military capability.
“The regime needs to recognize that the game is up,” Fox said.
Maj. Gen. Nick Pope, a British military spokesman, said royal Air Force jets also hit a large headquarters bunker in Sirte with a salvo of air-to-surface missiles.
NATO also bombed surface-to-air missile facilities near Tripoli, a statement said. Officials say Gaddafi's forces are trying to reconstitute their anti-aircraft weapons to pose a threat to humanitarian and civilian flights into Tripoli airport.
Meanwhile, dozens of decomposing bodies were piled up in an abandoned hospital in Tripoli, a grim testament to the chaos roiling the capital as Libyan NTC soldiers clash with pro-Gaddafi forces.
The four-story hospital was in the Abu Salim neighborhood, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting this week, although the facility was empty and it could not be determined when the men had been killed. The floors were covered with shattered glass and bloodstains, and medical equipment was strewn about.
One hospital room had 21 bodies lying on gurneys, while 20 others were in the hospital's courtyard next to the parking lot - all of them darker skinned than most Libyans, covered with blankets. Gaddafi had recruited fighters from sub-Saharan Africa.
With Gaddafi still on the run and vowing to fight to the death, NTC forces have struggled to take complete control of the Libya capital after sweeping into the city on Sunday. The fight in Abu Salim has been particularly bloody.
Bursts of gunfire were heard coming from an area near the neighborhood before daybreak Friday. Smoke rose from the area but an NTC soldier at the scene early Friday said the fighting in Abu Salim had ended by nightfall Thursday.
Men believed to be Gaddafi supporters or fighters were left moaning and calling for water at a clinic attached to a fire station in Abu Salim. Curious men from the neighborhood climbed stairs to look at the men, but none offered help.
One of the wounded said he was from Niger and denied any links to Gaddafi. Asked why he was in Libya, he said, “I really don't know.” He did not give his name.
Gaddafi had recruited fighters from sub-Saharan Africa, and many others are in Libya as migrant workers. In the turmoil since the rebellion broke out, migrant workers from southern Africa have been
Associated Press reporters flagged down a cab to take some of the wounded from the clinic to a hospital. The driver at first agreed, but men from the neighborhood intervened, saying the men would have to be interrogated before they could be moved.
The opposition's interim government, meanwhile, moved forward with efforts to establish political control despite the continuing violence.
The National Transitional Council (NTC) announced it is moving from the country's second-largest city of Benghazi in the east to the Tripoli.
A minister in the NTC government said Gaddafi's capture is not a prerequisite for setting up a new administration in the capital.
“We can start rebuilding our country,” Finance Minister Ali Tarhouni of the NTC told a news conference late on Thursday. “He [Gaddafi] is the one who is basically in the sewer, moving from one sewer to another.”
“I have a final message for everyone who is still carrying arms against the revolution,” he said, “to let go of their arms and go back to their homes, and we promise not to take revenge against them.”
Even with his regime in tatters, Gaddafi has tried to rally his followers to kill NTC forces who waged war for six months to bring down Libya's ruler of 42 years.
“Don't leave Tripoli for the rats. Fight them, and kill them,” Gaddafi said in an audio message broadcast Thursday on Al-Ouroba TV, a Syria-based satellite station.