SIRTE (Reuters) - Libyan fighters battled street by street for control of Muammar’s Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte for the third day on Saturday, taking sniper, assault rifle and rocket fire from his loyalists perched on the city’s rooftops.
Orange flashes of gunfire mixed with dust and black smoke over the sand-colored buildings of the seaside city as scores of machinegun and rocket launcher-mounted pick-ups trucks snaked through its streets.
Ambulances rushed away from the battle bearing wounded fighters west as the pro-Gaddafi men defended their ground.
Ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters said it was unclear how many Gaddafi loyalists were in the city but several suggested that some of Sirte’s civilian residents had started joining the fight on the ousted leader’s side.
“There have been heavy clashes since this morning,” NTC fighter, Mahmoud Terbelu, said as he stood in the middle of a large roundabout littered with bullet casings.
“There has been some resistance from civilians, volunteers. They’re above the buildings with Kalashnikovs, anti-aircraft guns, rockets and other weapons,” he said.
A green and beige building stood at the roundabout scarred by rocket fire in the last two days of fighting.
Dozens of pick-up trucks circled the town, fighters standing with rifles ready or drinking juice in the midday heat.
NTC soldiers said they had been battling for the city on three fronts -- from the west, the south and the east entrances -- but had been advancing slowly.
“There’s been fighting by the sea and in the city,” said one fighter who did not give his name. “We are gathering and then advancing. We are retaking it step by step.”
Down the road from the roundabout, fighters gathered and traded fire with an unseen gunman, taking cover behind breeze block walls and behind pickups.
A gated compound of seaside villas stood on the opposite side of the road, which rebels said were guesthouses where diplomats and other visitors to the city had stayed.
The Mediterranean glistened behind them.
A black pick-up truck rolled down the road from the direction of the city, a fighter in army fatigues slumped over the anti-aircraft machine-gun mounted on the back.
Blood poured down his arms and from his torso onto ammunition cartridges.
Men shouted “God is greatest” as he was loaded into the back of a field ambulance.
His comrade, wearing sunglasses and a black and white scarf, washed the blood from his hands using a water bottle.
Most of the NTC fighters come from the port city of Misrata and bear a special grudge against Gaddafi after a months-long siege devastated large parts of that city.
They spray-painted “Free Libya” and the names of their brigades over the once ubiquitous posters that displayed Gaddafi slogans and welcomed foreign diplomats to the city.
Many fighters said sniper fire still posed a challenge to the advance as well as the presence of civilians.
Gaddafi spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, told Reuters on Saturday that NATO airstrikes on Sirte had killed 357 civilians overnight -- an allegation NATO said may be unfounded.
“We don’t want to use them,” one NTC fighters told Reuters, gesturing toward two tanks
As dusk set in, the NTC fighters began to pull back to their bases on the outskirts of the city, satisfied with the progress they had made on Saturday, and vowing to be back tomorrow.