World News

Libyan forces make chaotic advance into Sirte

SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Obaid pulled up in his pick-up truck keen to fire the multiple rocket launcher mounted on the back at Gaddafi loyalists holding out in the Libyan city of Sirte, but just as he was about to shoot, he stopped to ask which way to aim.

His comrades standing nearby loudly conferred with one another then pointed him to what they agreed was the right direction and Obaid fired four Grad missiles at the city.

They all cheered him and shouted “Allahu Akbar.” Smoke rose above the already wrecked city, but no one could say if the Grad rockets hit the target, or even what the target was.

As National Transitional Council fighters advance into Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi’s home town, the fighting has become street-to-street and house-to-house.

Anyone with a gun is welcome to join the battle for Sirte.

Some scout the ground ahead by walking down the middle of the street. Others instead run down the street holding their AK47s above their heads while squeezing the trigger. Some spray bullets at empty plots of land, or lines of trees.

The fighters frequently have to dive for cover to avoid so-called “friendly fire.”

One man on a wheelchair had his friend roll him out into the firing line where he emptied a magazine of bullets at the street ahead and was then rolled away.

Two days ago, fighters brought back a dead comrade shot in the heart. They said he was killed mistakenly by a young fighter who did not know how to use his gun.

The inexperience and naivety of many of the NTC fighters is one of the reasons why the battle for Sirte has been dragging on for weeks.

Most of the government fighters are from elsewhere in Libya and do not know Sirte, where they are in it, or often what it is they are attacking. Every now and then they shout at each other to stop shooting because their own fighters are up ahead.

Meanwhile, various Che Guevara lookalikes with long black hair and beards pose for the cameras, flashing V-for-victory signs and shooting whatever they have in hand and hoping to achieve their 15 minutes of fame.

One young NTC fighter went to the top of a residential building and began firing his AK47 from a hole in the damaged wall.

“What is he firing at? There is nothing there,” barked an angry older comrade. “What kind of war is this? He just wants to be on Al Jazeera.”

NTC fighters swept into Tripoli two months ago and were able to take control of the capital in few days because they had help from within. But in Sirte, the bastion of Gaddafi’s own tribe, it is not that easy.

“It is their city, but we don’t know it ... the people inside think the revolutionaries are monsters who will kill them and steal their stuff. We are not,” said Colonel Habib Mohammed Habib, a field commander.

“The problem is that they (Gaddafi forces) know the city well and move from one house to the other,” said Hassan al-Fatouri, a brigade commander.

Weeks of bombardment followed by street fighting have killed an unknown number of civilians. That has led to fears that reconciliation between Libyans after the war may prove to be very difficult.

“They are families inside fighting for their houses and their children who have died,” said Mohammed, 23, who fled Sirte a few days ago.

“You know who is still fighting inside Sirte? Who is fighting is the person who has lost his brother, who has lost his mother, who has lost his sister ... The revolutionaries have brought us destruction.”

Editing by Jon Hemming