TRIPOLI Desperate civilians are fleeing the besieged Libyan coastal city of Sirte where the battle to dislodge fighters loyal to ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi has caused heavy casualties, U.N. and other sources said.
Interim government forces on Thursday recaptured the airport in Sirte, where Gaddafi loyalists have been using sniper, rocket and artillery fire to fight off full-scale assaults and retain one of their last two main bastions.
But the prolonged fight for Gaddafi's hometown has raised mounting concern for civilians trapped inside the city of about 100,000 people, with each side accusing the other of endangering civilians.
"They're shelling constantly. There's indiscriminate fire within individual neighborhoods and from one area to another," Hassan, a resident who escaped the city, told Reuters.
Aid agencies said on Wednesday that a humanitarian disaster loomed in Sirte amid rising casualties and shrinking supplies of water, electricity and food.
Libya's interim government has asked the United Nations for fuel for ambulances to evacuate its wounded fighters from Sirte, a U.N. source in Libya said on Thursday.
The U.N. is sending trucks of drinking water for the increasing flow of civilians crammed into vehicles on the road from Sirte, heading either toward Benghazi to the east or Misrata to the west, he added.
But fighting around the city and continuing insecurity around Bani Walid, the other loyalist hold-out, are preventing the world body from deploying aid workers inside, he said.
"There are two places we'd really like access to, Sirte and Ben Walid, because of concern on the impact of conflict on the civilian population," the U.N. source in Tripoli, speaking by telephone on condition of anonymity, told Reuters in Geneva.
CARE FOR FIGHTERS
In Tripoli, interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril said the NTC had allocated $400 million to treat fighters who were wounded in the rebellion against Gaddafi and provide grants for Libyan students studying abroad.
Jibril also said that families of fighters killed in fighting would be paid 400 Libyan dinars ($335) a month and a monthly salary of 450 to 500 Libyan dinars would be paid to Libyans who quit their jobs to pick up arms against Gaddafi. He did not say for how long those payments would be made.
Libya's new rulers are trying to get a grip on the whole country, rein in their own unruly militias and get on with reconstruction and democratic reform.
Jibril said efforts to form a new interim government have been suspended until after the capture of Sirte and Bani Walid.
"There are no negotiations at the moment to form a transitional government after the NTC decided to keep the current formation to facilitate the (country's) affairs until the land is liberated," Jibril said.
"There are two fronts, Sirte and Bani Walid. I hope those two areas would be liberated soon so that we can start forming a new interim government," he said, ruling out any role in the future government.
There has been speculation that divisions are preventing the formation of a more inclusive interim government.
More than a month after NTC fighters captured Tripoli, Gaddafi remains on the run, trying to rally resistance to those who ended his 42-year rule. Some of his family members have taken refuge in neighboring Algeria and Niger.
Interpol issued an alert calling for the arrest of Gaddafi's son Saadi who fled to Niger three weeks ago. The Lyon-based police agency said it was acting at the request of the NTC, which accuses Saadi of leading military units that cracked down on protests and of misappropriating property.
Interpol has already issued "red notices" for the arrest of Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam and his intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, all wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.
Gaddafi's former prime minister, Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi, who had fled to Tunisia, only to be arrested for illegal entry, has started a hunger strike in prison to protest a Libyan request for his extradition, his lawyer said.
Tunisian prosecutors say Mahmoudi will stay in jail pending an extradition decision, even though he won an appeal against a six-month prison sentence for entering Tunisia illegally.
(Additional reporting by Sherine El Madany in Sirte, William MacLean and Alexander Dziadosz in Tripoli, Emad Omar in Benghazi; Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Michael Roddy)