Conflict & Justice

Civilians blocked from fleeing as Gaddafi forces gain ground in Sirte


White smoke billows in the air during clashes between Gaddafi loyalists and Libyan National Transition Council fighters in Bani Walid, a Gaddafi stronghold.


Mahmud Turkia

OUTSKIRTS OF SIRTE, Libya — The flood of civilian cars leaving Sirte slowed significantly today as civilians and rebels reported that loyalists had forced back some families who had been attempting to flee.

According to rebel commanders from Misrata, loyalist troops barricaded escape routes from their stronghold in Abu Hadi, a neighborhood south of Sirte, and north along the coastal road.

Rebels have been attempting to evacuate the city before launching a full-scale assault in the hope of reducing civilian casualties. But loyalist forces have repeatedly scuttled any such attempt.

While escorting a civilian car out of the city Friday morning, rebels came under heavy fire. The civilian car was shot at and at least one rebel was killed.

“Before there was 600 cars going out daily, today one hundred,” said Osama Muttawa Sweki, an operations commander who coordinates some 70 Misrata-based brigades and who communicates with NATO on air strikes.

“They shot artillery at us as we left today,” said Malik Mohammed, a Sirte resident, as he passed through a rebel checkpoint with his family 40 kilometers outside of Sirte. “There are 500 people on a list that Gaddafi soldiers are looking for … I’m on the list.”

“One man from the family Zain was shot for being a rebel,” he added.

On Thursday, officials at one checkpoint just outside of Sirte registered 200 families, or about a 1,000 residents, who had fled Sirte. Today, half that many managed to escape, as Gaddafi loyalists blocked the exits with sand berms and shot at anyone who tried to leave.

Swecki said that the rebel forces were trying to starve the loyalists out while giving families a chance to flee. But, he said, “Once the stream of families slows to a trickle, then stops, we’ll go in … It won’t take weeks,” he said.

Meanwhile, a commander on the eastern front told news agencies that his fighters had penetrated the eastern gate of Sirte without resistance. This news may give the Misrata brigades cause to attack sooner than later as they attempt to maintain their reputation as better fighters than the National Transition Council’s eastern-based army.

Sadik Al Hadad, who is from Misrata but traveled to Sirte to try and evacuate his sister, said that he had tried to take her through one gate, which was closed, and instead moved out through another area that was free.

Dozens of Girad rockets, launched by loyalists, slammed into the western outskirts of the city Friday while NATO broadcasted English and Arabic messages urging Sirte residents to “raise the white flag.”

“Make a choice for your family,” the broadcast said.