BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - - It will take Libyan rebels more than 10 days to take control of Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi’s home town and one of his last major bastions of support along the Mediterranean coast, a rebel commander told Reuters on Sunday.
Rebel troops have advanced to within 100 km (60 miles) of Sirte from the east and are also approaching from Misrata to the west, and will fight for Sirte if negotiations now under way on handing them control of the town fail, he said.
“Our aim isn’t bloodshed, our aim is liberation,” Colonel Salem Muftah al-Refaidy told Reuters during a visit to Benghazi, saying it would take more than 10 days to ‘liberate’ Sirte. “We don’t want more bloodshed, especially among the civilians — children, elderly, women.”
Observers are concerned fighting in Sirte could be bloodier than that in Tripoli, where many corpses are rotting in the streets after rebels streamed in last week.
Sirte is believed to hold large numbers of die-hard Gaddafi supporters and significant military installations. NATO has said Gaddafi’s army has fired several Scud missiles from the town, but all are believed to have fallen far from their targets.
Rebel spokesman Mohammad Zawawi said his fighters now occupied the town of Ben Jawad, an area about 100 km from Sirte from which pro-Gaddafi troops had withdrawn, and were waiting there for negotiations to be completed.
“That’s why we chose to stay outside, but it’s almost empty and we want to move forward and go west,” he said.
He said talks over the surrender of Gaddafi supporters in Sirte were continuing but with little sign of progress.
“We’re still waiting for them to stop fighting and open their city,” Zawawi said. “We’ve had no result yet.”
He did not say how long the rebels would wait.
Rebel forces see Sirte as their last obstacle to controlling Libya’s Mediterranean coast, where most of the country’s 6 million people live.
After Sirte, the rebels say they will turn to Gaddafi’s Sabha stronghold in the desert south.
A rebel government spokesman said on Sunday the rebel authorities did not know where Gaddafi was hiding.
Reporting by Robert Birsel; writing by Richard Valdmanis; editing by Tim Pearce