* Civilians still trying to flee to the fighting
* Gaddafi forces putting up fierce resistance
* Protracted battle risks bitterness, national divisions
By Rania El Gamal and Tim Gaynor
SIRTE, Libya, Oct 10 Libyan transitional
government forces said they had cornered Muammar Gaddafi
loyalists in a small area in the centre of the deposed leader's
hometown on Monday, but many desperate civilians were still
trying to flee the fierce street clashes.
The protracted battle for Sirte, a showpiece Mediterranean
coastal city largely loyal to Gaddafi, has raised concerns about
many civilian casualties that could breed long-term hostility
making it very hard for the National Transitional Council (NTC)
to unite the vast North African state once the fighting is over.
"Gaddafi's forces are cornered in two neighbourhoods near
the sea, an area of about 2-km square, but there is still
resistance," Abdul Salam Javallah, commander of NTC units from
eastern Libya, told Reuters on the front line of their attack.
"We are dealing with them now with light weapons because
there are still families inside," he said.
Shortly after he spoke, a group of three women, three small
children and two male civilians emerged from a house on the
front line. They were searched by the rebels and hurriedly got
into a car and drove off waving the V-for-victory sign.
Another family of three women and one man, stopping at a
checkpoint as they fled Sirte, said they had been trapped in
their house by the fighting.
"We didn't know where the strikes were coming from. Everyone
is being hit all day and all night. There is no electricity and
no water. There is nothing. There is not one neighbourhood that
hasn't been hit," said one of the women, who gave her name as
Despite the claims of NTC commanders to be only using light
weapons, government tanks moved into road intersections and
pounded the positions of Gaddafi loyalists, while pick-up trucks
mounted with heavy weapons as well as foot soldiers darted out
of cover to fire wildly up ahead.
At times, NTC units came under fire from their own side, a
problem becoming more acute as the rag-tag groups of government
volunteers attacking from the east and west are now closing in
on one another.
Anti-Gaddafi forces captured the capital Tripoli on Aug. 23
after six months of civil war, ending Gaddafi's one-man rule
after 42 years, and he is believed to be in hiding in Libya's
remote southern desert.
NTC forces have since struggled to take Sirte and a few
other leftover bastions of Gaddafi loyalists, and this has
impeded efforts to set up effective government nationwide and
restart oil production, the lifeblood of the Libyan economy.
NTC forces in Sirte took three important landmark buildings
on Sunday -- the main hospital, the university and the opulent
Ouagadougou conference centre, built to host the summits of
foreign dignitaries that Gaddafi was fond of staging.
"Eighty percent of Sirte is now under our control," said
Omar Abu Lifa, a commander of government forces attacking Sirte
from the west.
NTC forces have repeatedly claimed to be on the point of
victory in Sirte, only to suffer sudden reversals at the hands
of a tenacious enemy fighting for its life, surrounded on three
sides and with its back to the sea.
In just one field hospital to the east of the city, doctors
said they had received 17 dead and 87 wounded in Sunday's
fighting. There were dozens more casualties elsewhere.
One man, a student, who had escaped from the centre of the
city, said he had watched from a rooftop on Sunday as Gaddafi
soldiers had destroyed 10 government pick-up trucks.
"Their morale is very high," said Salam Awad. "They are
prepared to fight to the death."
NTC chairman Abdel Jalil said his men had reached Sirte city
centre, while the only other major town in the hands of Gaddafi
loyalists, Bani Walid in the interior desert to the south, was
also under siege from no fewer than five sides.
"I think and I hope, with the help of God, the liberation of
these two towns will be completed by the end of this week. God
willing," he told a news conference in Tripoli on Sunday.
Sirte holds symbolic significance because Gaddafi turned it
from a fishing village into a second capital. He built opulent
villas, hotels and conference halls to house the international
summits he liked to stage there.
(Additional reporting by Barry Malone and Joseph Logan in
Tripoli; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Mark Heinrich)