Gaddafi diehards in Sirte hold up Libyan troops

SIRTE Sun Oct 16, 2011 7:57pm EDT

1 of 3. An anti-Gaddafi fighter fires a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) during clashes with Gaddafi forces at the front line in the center of Sirte October 16, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani

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SIRTE (Reuters)- Libyan government fighters battled Sunday to subdue pockets of resistance by pro-Gaddafi fighters, whose refusal to abandon the ousted leader's hometown of Sirte is delaying Libya's move to democracy.

Ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) forces kept up their bombardment of a small area in the center of Sirte but there was no push under way from ground troops.

NTC militia have besieged Sirte for weeks, slowly boxing Gaddafi die-hards into an area about two square kilometers (a square mile). Green flags, the symbol of Gaddafi's rule, still fly over the area.

Some fighters expressed irritation with their commanders for failing to order and advance and poor communication between brigades.

"There are no orders coming in even though we have the power to push them out," Hesham al-Dafani, an NTC fighter, told Reuters. "We don't know what's happening."

The failure to seize Sirte -- and the other remaining Gaddafi holdout, Bani Walid -- has delayed Libya's democratic transition. The country's new rulers say the process will only begin once Sirte is captured.

Fighting also continued in Bani Walid Sunday, Reuters reporters said, with sniper fire hindering an NTC advance into the city just as it has in Sirte.

Some fighters in Sirte said they suspected that the failure to order an advance was a result of NTC leaders not yet being ready to set out a roadmap for national elections.

Other fighters blamed the delay on a lack of communication between different NTC militias in Sirte.

"We are civilians, we not military people," NTC field commander, Mohammed al Sabty, said. "We don't have a certain plan."

NTC fighters continued to fire on an area known as Neighborhood Two and said they believed one of Gaddafi's sons, Mo'tassim, could be holed up there.

"We know that Gaddafi's Mo'tassim is inside, that's why they are fighting to the last drop of blood," commander Omar Abu Lifa said. "We're surrounding that area. We are taking it slowly because we want to catch him alive."

Some NTC sources told Reuters last week Mo'tassim, a former national security advisor, had been captured as he tried to escape Sirte. But the ruling NTC has yet to officially confirm, or deny, the reports.

NTC officers say Gaddafi loyalists continue to hold out because they fear reprisals if they surrender. Some captured fighters have been abused, rights groups say.

A doctor for the medical aid charity Medecins Sans Frontieres in Sirte has estimated 10,000 people remain trapped in the city of 75,000 residents. Many are women and children, some are sick or injured.

GADDAFI HOME BULLDOZED

Some political analysts say the long sieges of Sirte and Bani Walid risk undermining the NTC which and frustrate its effort to control the whole country.

The often chaotic struggle for Sirte has killed scores of people, left thousands homeless and laid waste to much of what was once a showpiece Mediterranean city where Gaddafi enjoyed entertaining foreign leaders.

The dangers posed by the failure to capture Gaddafi were highlighted Friday when fighting erupted in Tripoli between NTC forces and Gaddafi-loyalists for the first time since he fled the city in August.

Government forces set up more roadblocks across the city over the weekend, but especially in and around Abu Salim, an area of run-down apartment blocks where the clashes took place.

The area remained calm Sunday amid the heavy security but, nearby, a group of armed men with two bulldozers began demolishing the walls around Gaddafi's former home.

As the bulldozers set about the Bab al-Azizyah compound, a heavily fortified construction spread over 2.3 square miles that symbolized his repressive rule, men chanted, "God is greatest. This is for the blood of the martyrs."

Some fired machineguns into the air.

"We are destroying it because we want to demolish anything that belongs to Gaddafi," one gunman, Essam Sarag, told Reuters.

People driving past stopped their cars and joined a crowd waving new Libyan flags.

"We will continue until we destroy everything that belongs to Gaddafi," said Etman Lelktah, who said he was in charge of the fighters at the scene.

"We ask that a peace organization be built instead of Gaddafi's place."

(Additional reporting by Haydar Zim in Bani Walid and Yasmine Saleh in Tripoli; Writing by Barry Malone; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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