SIRTE, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Civilians have been fleeing Sirte as interim government forces intensify their shelling of the coastal city in an effort to dislodge fighters loyal to ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The prolonged battle for Gaddafi’s hometown, besieged from three fronts, has raised concern for civilians trapped inside the city of about 100,000 people.
Cars streamed out of Sirte from the early hours and into the afternoon on Friday. Shelling and tank fire continued from both sides on the eastern and western fronts, black smoke rose from the centre of town and NATO planes flew overhead.
Medical workers at a field hospital near Sirte said four fighters with the interim authorities were killed by pro-Gaddafi snipers and 20 others were wounded.
A Reuters team on the edge of Sirte heard five huge explosions just before sundown. It was not immediately clear what had caused the explosions.
Fighting was particularly heavy near a roundabout on the eastern outskirts of the city, where forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) have been pinned down for five days.
Some fighters again fled the frontline under the fire.
“It’s difficult, difficult,” said anti-Gaddafi fighter Rami Moftah. “You know, with the snipers. You can’t find them. Yesterday there was no ammunition. It was finished. I swear to God. If the Gaddafi people knew that they would have come and taken Sirte from us.”
Several residents told Reuters they were leaving Sirte because they had not eaten for days.
“I am not scared. I am hungry,” said Ghazi Abdul-Wahab, a Syrian who has lived in the town for 40 years.
Abdul-Wahab said he had been sleeping in the streets with his family after a NATO air strike hit a building next to his house, making him fear his home could also be struck.
“People inside are scared about their houses. People want to protect their houses,” he said, adding that some locals may fight because they have heard the NTC wants to kill them.
Some residents said they had paid up to $800 for fuel to leave the city because it was scarce. Others said pasta and flour were now changing hands for large sums of money.
Doctors at a field hospital said an elderly woman died from malnutrition and they had seen other cases.
Gaddafi loyalists and some civilians were blaming NATO air strikes and shelling by NTC forces for killing civilians.
NATO and the NTC deny that. They and some other civilians coming out of the town say pro-Gaddafi fighters are executing people they believe to be NTC sympathisers.
“It is not the Gaddafi people and not you people,” one elderly man shouted, gesturing towards NTC fighters at a checkpoint as he left the city.
“It’s the French planes that are hitting us night and day. They knocked the roof off our house. Is this how we’re supposed to die?”
Ahmad Mohammed Yahya told Reuters street fighting was erupting in the town most nights and that pro-Gaddafi fighters were aggressively recruiting local people. “Sometimes they offer to give you a weapon,” he said. “And sometimes they take people and force them to fight.”
The NTC is under pressure to strike a balance between a prolonged fight that would delay its efforts to govern and a quick victory which, if too bloody, could worsen divisions and embarrass the fledgling government and its foreign backers.
Aid agencies said this week a humanitarian disaster loomed in Sirte because of shrinking supplies of water, power and food.
A United Nations source in Libya said the U.N. was sending trucks of drinking water for the civilians fleeing Sirte, heading east toward Benghazi or west to Misrata.
But fighting around the city and continuing insecurity around Bani Walid, the other loyalist hold-out, are preventing the U.N. from deploying aid workers inside, the source said.
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.
In a separate development, Tuareg tribesmen and local Arabs who have fought skirmishes near the Saharan oasis of Ghadames exchanged hostages and signed an agreement on Friday to try to stabilise an area where some security officials believe Gaddafi has taken refuge. (Additional reporting by Mahdi Talat in Sirte, William MacLean in Tripoli, Ali Shuaib in Ghademes and Emad Omar in Benghazi; Writing by Barry Malone and Joseph Nasr,; Editing by Rosalind Russell)