OUTSKIRTS OF SIRTE, Libya — Nearly three weeks into their assault on Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, the revolutionaries launched their first coordinated attack on the city proper, sending hundreds of trucks and men on foot pushing from strategic points into the city.
The results were mixed — with rebels having cleared a neighborhood of bungalows known as the 700 Houses complex where they’d taken significant sniper fire, but still mostly thwarted from entering one of the loyalist centers which contains Sirte’s main hospital and Ugadugo Congress Hall.
By late afternoon, at least 11 had been killed and more than 150 wounded.
News began to filter last night through the Misrata-based brigades encamped in nicely furnished houses of former regime figures that the attack would come this morning. And several reporters saw commanders planning the assault with an accurate map of the city last night.
The young fighters woke up by 6 a.m. They were joined by hundreds of machine gun trucks streaming in from Misrata.
By 8 a.m., tanks and rockets were slamming the city, while a group of fighters marched behind tanks and heavy guns towards the Ugadugo complex. It was the first sign of a tactical plan to take the high-valued area where Motassim Gaddafi is rumored to be giving orders from, and experienced snipers are defending him at all costs.
“We attacked because today is our holy day (Friday),” said Lutvig Al Amin, 47, of Misrata, who launched a series of RPGs and then pulled back to pray and eat dates because he was told another group was going to hit the area with heavier rockets.
The early morning push got the revolutionaries to the last wall before the complex, but there they were bottlenecked at the gate and the organization disintegrated. Accurate sniper fire pinged into the green steel doors, wounding at least three fighters trying to peak around the corner into the open field of fire. Gun trucks ran through the gate but, after firing their barrage, returned bloodied and panicked, some crashing into others.
One man, crouching with friends, took a bullet straight to the head without muttering a word.
The loyalist fire appeared to be coming from a military base southeast of the wall. Gun trucks pushed toward the base, backed by tank fire, while fighters snaked between a path of parked vehicles to build a trench as a firing position. A bulldozer even broke down the wall so fighters could get through in other places. But loyalist sniper fire and RPGs sporadically rained down, keeping the ambulances filled with horizontal bodies.
At the 700 Houses, several kilometers west, another group of brigades pushed from a farming area into the rows of bungalows. Using heavy firepower, backed by a patchwork of men and teens firing anything they could get their hands on, the fighters took the houses. The rebels stepped on wall hangings of Gaddafi in celebration. One reported they’d found three loyalist bodies next to Draganov sniper rifles.
But as witnessed a dozen times before, if the rebels don’t hold the neighborhood overnight, they will have to fight for it again in the morning. A heavy rocket hit an outer wall tossing a younger fighter into the air, and his comrades ran out to bear him in their arms toward an ambulance.
In the midst of it, a well-dressed Misratan father looked after his son, Mohammed, a curly-haired young man on the front line. The father said he was worried when he first started fighting.
“I want him to be a doctor. I got over it, we were worried initially. But it’s in God’s hands. I want him to share this because this is his country, and hopefully he has a longer life than me,” the father said.
This push could signal the final few days before revolutionaries take Sirte. There is increasing pressure on the National Transitional Council to end fighting in Sirte in order to pave the way for elections.
But the last time revolutionaries took casualties in these numbers, they licked their wounds for almost a week, and set up checkpoints to allow Sirte families to flee instead. They’re not worried about the families now, they said. Their only goal is to finish Sirte.