Monday 20 November 2017

Libyan rebels launch 'final offensive' on Sirte stronghold

Ruth Sherlock in Sirte

Libyan rebel forces launched a bloody "final offensive" on the loyalist stronghold of Sirte yesterday, battling to clear the city of men fighting for the former regime.

"Today this is finished. We are going to end this now. Sirte is ours!" shouted Commander Amin El Turki to his men, their rows of heavy machine guns pointed to the city.

In the largest coordinated onslaught of the rebel campaign to date, thousands of fighters and armed pickup trucks gathered on roads around the besieged city before dawn.

In the simultaneous attack, brigades from eastern Libya pounded their front, and another brigade advanced along the coastline.

By early morning dozens of buildings were burning, and a thick black smoke enveloped the city.

"They are screaming that people are dying everywhere," said a man listening to loyalist radio dispatches.

NATO planes whirred overhead. "Since yesterday NATO has sent messages on the enemy's radio frequencies telling them to drop their weapons, and leave their tanks," said field officer Mohamed Shebti.

The battle for Sirte is the culmination of the NATO-supported eight-month Libyan civil war.

Abdel Mustafa Jalil, the National Transitional Council (NTC) chairman has said the campaign's success will only be official -- marking the start of a period of political transition -- when the city falls.

On Thursday night, in the opulent home that had belonged to the brother of Muammar Gaddafi's spokesperson Moussa Ibrahim, military commanders had held a conference. Poring over giant maps of the area Cmdr Turki and others had planned the offensive. But the NTC fighters met with stiff resistance from inside the city.

Loyalists hit back at the entrance to the Wagadugu conference centre, a military fortress a mile from the centre.

Sniper bullets hissed thick and fast through the air from all directions and rocket propelled grenades exploded overhead.

Four hours into the attack more than 125 were wounded, and eight were confirmed dead. Cmdr Turki, who that morning had roused his men to fight, was among those killed.

"There are other bodies on the ground but we cannot reach them because of sniper fire," said Dr Mohammed Mustafa at a field hospital close to the front line.

Loyalist fighters fired mortars from Ibn Sina, Sirte's central hospital, the nerve centre of the military operation. Others fought from the military complex and "hundreds of snipers" occupied fortified buildings of a newly built university, rebels said.

"All these are full of snipers," said Mr Shebti, pointing to buildings less than a mile across the field.

The men fighting inside the city know the streets intimately and they have the advantage of fighting a defensive war.

"If they hold their positions despite our artillery attack, we will have to make another plan. Maybe we will have to go in on foot.

"We will lose lives, but we have no choice," said Ali Shah (30). (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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