Conflict & Justice

Western rebels penetrate Gaddafi's hometown


National Transitional Council fighters prepare for a fight in the city of Sirte on Sept. 24, 2011.


Aris Messinis

SIRTE, Libya — Rebels based in the Western part of Libya penetrated into Sirte with a heavy three-pronged attack on Saturday, following four days of relatively little fighting as rebels attempted to evacuate civilians from the city.

One Sirte resident, Mustafa Stewi, said that 65 percent of the city's residents were still inside, despite another mass exodus today of more than 200 families.

Although the flight of civilians hadn’t slowed anywhere near to the “trickle” that operations commander, Osama Swecki, said would trigger their assault, the Misrata brigades went into Sirte heavy this morning. Swecki said they intended to set up a forward position in the city and hold it, something the rebels have yet shown the ability to do in Sirte, the hometown of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Another operations leader, Mohammed Ahmed Asawai, in a large truck equipped with antennas, said that rebel commanders had planned that surprise attack the night before. Asawai said that since soldiers loyal to Gaddafi were now blocking civilians from leaving, they had no choice but to go in.

One fighter, wounded in the hand by grenade shrapnel, perhaps gave a more honest assessment.

“I haven’t taken a shower in 15 days, we need to go in,” he said.

The chaotic attack resulted in a rebel gain of several kilometers. But the price of that forward movement was severe. The mosque that functioned as a field hospital began filling with wounded. By early afternoon, field doctors said that at least 30 had been wounded, 10 seriously. A flurry of ambulances arrived to transfer the patients to a hospital more than 40 kilometers away, where four helicopters then air lifted the critically injured to a hospital in Misrata.

By evening, seven rebel soldiers had been killed and more than 145 wounded, according to the Misrata military council.

The fighting on Sept. 1 Street, one of the main routes into Sirte, was heavily contested. The rebels pushed into Sirte under heavy RPG and sniper fire. Hundreds of pick up trucks with mounted anti aircraft guns plowed backward down the street, their guns facing forward, blazing with fire.

A mosque that had reportedly served as a loyalist sniper point nearly a week before, was pockmarked with blast holes. Some rebel groups took cover to smoke and eat a hasty meal in abandoned shops, as others sauntered in flip flops — their AK-47s slung over their shoulders toward the direction of fire.

The most common tactic used by the rebels was to open up with the heavy anti-aircraft guns and 106 cannons on a sniper position, and then quickly retreat to reload as men on foot, bearing lighter weapons, followed, shooting toward the same multi-story building.

Flanking maneuvers didn’t seem to be considered, as the neighborhoods were unknown. Snipers could have been hiding in any adjacent house or fire could have been coming from a second prong trying to take the coastal road to the north.

Some soldiers ran out to the middle of the street to launch RPGs while others stood back and filmed it all from their camera phones. Teams reloaded forearm-sized bullets into containers for the anti-aircraft gun over the deafening roar of simultaneous heavy guns.

The renewed assault appeared to be some of the heaviest fighting the Misrata brigades have seen since the siege of their own city.

“I think it is the second heaviest, heavier than Tripoli,” said Farouk, a local driver.

The grounds outside the Misrata hospital were filled with hundreds of men crowding around the list of the wounded and killed. Others massed around ambulances that drove up an emergency ramp. As a wooden coffin emerged from the hospital, men called out “Shahid,” or “Martyr.”