ALGIERS (Reuters) - For Libyan rebels advancing westwards along the Mediterranean coast, the city of Sirte, hometown of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and an important military base, could prove a formidable battleground.
Rebel fighters were pushing out from their stronghold in eastern Libya and on Saturday had taken the town of Bin Jawad, leaving them less than 100 km (60 miles) outside Sirte, with little except empty beach and desert between the two.
The fight over Sirte is likely to be tough because the town is psychologically important: it is not only where Gaddafi was born but a place he has fashioned into a second capital designed in his own extravagant image.
“If Benghazi (rebels) can expand down into the Gulf of Sirte ... they’ve got a very good shot at independence at the least -- or maybe even overturning him at the most,” said Peter Zeihan, analyst with the U.S.-based Stratfor think tank.
Though the Sirte basin is home to a large part of Libya’s oil reserves, the town itself does not have any major energy infrastructure.
But Sirte does have strategic importance because the civilian airport to the south of the town is also home to what appears to be a large military air base.
Satellite images show that there are about 50 re-enforced concrete hangars, of the kind usually used to house military fighter jets, arranged in clusters around either end of the runway.
Before Gaddafi came to power in a military coup in 1969, Sirte was a small, obscure town on a stretch of coastline where the desert runs right up to the sea.
The outlines of the old town can still be seen: the main street of modest two-storey buildings, and the tiny fishing jetties sticking out into the Mediterranean.
But all that has been overtaken by a vast and ambitious construction project to turn Sirte into a city worthy of Gaddafi’s ambitions as the “king of African kings.”
The center-piece is the Ouagadougou conference center, a huge marble-lined hall where Gaddafi hosts summits of foreign heads of state. Gaddafi has a tent complex on the beach nearby where favoured leaders are invited to spend the evening.
A U.S. embassy cable published by the WikiLeaks site described a summit of African leaders in Sirte as a “Gaddafi-centric dog and pony show.”
It was in the town that in 1999 the founding document of the African Union -- since known as the Sirte declaration and one of Gaddafi’s proudest achievements -- was signed.
Around the summit complex Turkish workers are building luxury villas and a marina where, during one summit, a huge motor yacht with a helicopter landing pad on its stern was moored.
But Sirte still has a rough-and-ready feel. One European ambassador who came to arrange the logistics for a summit had to sleep in a hotel garden because there was no room inside. “They did provide some blankets,” said an aide.
During international summits, the only occasions when foreign journalists are allowed to travel to Sirte, the town is heavily guarded.
On the desert roads leading into the town, armed men in military fatigues are stationed every few hundred meters (yards), often sitting under tarpaulins stretched from the side of their pick-up trucks to keep out the sun.
Military trucks with radar equipment on the roof are also parked in patches of scrubland.
Traffic is stopped whenever Gaddafi’s convoy sweeps by with its dozens of sports utility vehicles, police outriders on Harley-Davidson motorbikes, and a huge motorhome with communications aerials sticking out of the roof.