Libya holds back assault on last Gaddafi redoubts

WEST OF SIRTE, Libya — Forces loyal to Libya’s new rulers said they were holding back on Thursday from advancing on Muammar Gaddafi’s last redoubts despite their capture of two key southern oases.

By (AFP)

Published: Thu 22 Sep 2011, 7:22 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 1:54 AM

The commander of NATO’s Libya air campaign, Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, said he was confident the mission could be completed ‘well within’ three months a day after the alliance extended it for another 90 days.

Commanders said that new regime forces were in control of all three main towns in the Al Jufra oasis on Thursday, 24 hours after they announced the capture of Libya’s largest desert city, Sabha, in the deep south.

The defeat of Gaddafi loyalists in the Saharan oases left his remaining forces in his hometown of Sirte on the central Mediterranean coast and the desert city of Bani Walid to its west effectively cut off from any line of escape to Libya’s remote southern borders.

‘Al-Jufra — Hun, Waddan and Sokna — is liberated,’ a military spokesman in Libya’s third largest city Misrata said in a statement early on Thursday.

There had been heavy fighting in the oasis on Wednesday as National Transitional Council (NTC) troops advancing from Waddan captured Hun and then moved on Gaddafi’s forces as they retreated to Sokna further south.

‘Our forces seized Waddan on Tuesday and then captured the base between Waddan and Hun at dawn on Wednesday and took Hun during the day,’ an NTC official told AFP in Libya’s main eastern city Benghazi on Wednesday evening.

‘Two of our fighters were wounded. There were 11 dead and 25 wounded among Gaddafi’s men and we captured 14,’ said Kamal Al Hzifeh, the coordinator between the military command in Al Jufra and the NTC.

Hzifeh said that Gaddafi’s forces had shelled Hun to cover their retreat before NATO aircraft intervened at around 5 pm (1500 GMT) to hit the source of the fire.

In its operational update on Thursday, NATO said that its warplanes had hit four anti-aircraft guns as well as a vehicle storage depot around Hun.

The alliance said it had also struck a command and control node and five surface-to-air missile systems in and around Sirte.

NATO’s operations commander said resistance among Gaddafi loyalists was now restricted to ‘only three isolated pockets’ — Sirte, Bani Walid, and Al Fugaha, another desert town to its south.

Bouchard added that Gaddafi forces ‘are no longer able to conduct coordinated operations throughout Libya,’ while the number of people at risk from pro-Gaddafi military action had fallen to about 200,000.

He said he had no idea where the fugitive colonel was but stressed that the ousted strongman continues to ‘give orders’ and ‘entice regime forces’ to act.

Commanders on the front line west of Gaddafi’s hometown said they had been told to expect further NATO air strikes on Thursday and had orders not to advance.

East of Sirte, commanders said that they had put off any offensive against the city for at least a week for want of ammunition after heavy fighting in recent days.

‘Fighting has been stopped for a week. We are facing a shortage of ammunition,’ said Commander Mustafa bin Dardef of the Zintan Brigade, whose troops are some 25 kilometres (15 miles) east of Sirte.

Bin Dardef said he was heading to Libya’s main eastern city of Benghazi with a group of his men to try to organise new supplies.

In the meantime, troops loyal to the new regime would establish a ‘strong defensive line’ around the town of Sultana, which they captured early on Monday and is now five kilometres behind the front line.

Medics at a field hospital which NTC forces have set up at a point called Kilometre 50, a little behind the front line, said one fighter had been killed and three wounded in skirmishes on the western side of Sirte on Thursday.

Troops also showed journalists the body of a comrade they said had been captured by Gaddafi forces a few days ago and then tortured and killed before it was dumped on the city’s outskirts.

Another new regime commander, Ahmed Zlitni, said the advancing troops were keen to avoid using heavy weapons against Sirte for fear of civilian casualties.

‘We are still giving time for Sirte civilians to leave the city,’ Zlitni told AFP.

An AFP correspondent saw dozens of fleeing families at the first government checkpoint west of Sirte, on Thursday.

Commanders at the checkpoint said 300 people had been registered, up on the 250 listed on Wednesday.

Mohammed bin Sirtiya, who arrived with his wife and eight children, said life in Sirte had become ‘unbearable.’

‘All we’ve been eating is macaroni,’ he said. ‘Everybody is hiding in their homes. Nobody is going out.’

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