Sniper fire holds up push into Sirte; Panetta to consult NATO commanders on Libya war


Heavy sniper fire from forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi held back Libyan government forces trying to take the former leader’s hometown on Thursday, making predictions of a quick end to the battle looked optimistic, as the Pentagon chief was due to consult NATO commanders on Libya air war.

Residents who fled the town of Sirte said civilians were dying. One man said a rocket strike killed his 11-year-old son and he had to bury him where he died because the fighting was too intense to reach the cemetery.

Taking Sirte is of huge importance to Libya’s new rulers, and until it is captured they are putting on hold plans to start rebuilding the country as a democracy.

Once a sleepy fishing town, Qaddafi transformed his birthplace into Libya’s second capital. Parliament often sat in Sirte and international summits were held in a marble-clad conference centre in the south of the city.

Commanders with the National Transitional Council (NTC) said this week they believed they would have Sirte, a city of 75,000, under their full control by the weekend, according to Reuters.

But Qaddafi loyalists, many of whom pulled back to Sirte when they lost control of other cities, are putting up fierce resistance. They have nowhere else to go.

“A lot of them are veterans, the hardcore fanatics. There’s also mercenaries (and) people fiercely loyal to Gaddafi,” said Matthew Van Dyke, an American who is fighting with the anti-Qaddafi forces.

“They are not going to give up,” said Van Dyke, who said he came to Libya seven months ago to visit friends, was arrested by Qaddafi forces, and joined the fighting on his release.

“It’s going to take a while. (Because of) the snipers, we are going to take a lot of casualties.”

NTC units at the front line based themselves in a luxury hotel on the northeastern corner of Sirte, from where they were trying to take out loyalist sniper positions and mount patrols into the surrounding streets.

They did not appear to have progressed any further into the center of Sirte than they had been 24 hours earlier.

Where is Qaddafi hiding?

At one point, fighters on the roof of the hotel had to lie flat and take cover behind a parapet when they came under machine gun fire from loyalists in nearby buildings.

On the marble staircase leading down from the roof was a trail of blood and bandages. On the ground floor of the hotel -- which rebels said was built to accommodate Qaddafi’s guests -- water in the fountain was stagnant.

NTC units used binoculars to look for the telltale flash coming from the weapons of pro-Qaddafi snipers, and then directed machine gun and mortar fire at the source of the flash.

They said one loyalist sniper was hiding out in the minaret of a mosque about 600 meters away.

Residential buildings were blackened, and lumps of concrete lay in the streets below after they had been blown off by large-caliber rounds.

Anti-Qaddafi commanders say they do not believe the deposed Libyan leader is in Sirte, though they said one of his sons, Motassem, was in the city. Muammar Qaddafi himself is thought to be hiding somewhere to the south, in the Sahara desert.

Near Sirte airport, a set of aircraft steps had been abandoned in the highway. They were lined with a red carpet, edged in gold -- possibly the steps used for the foreign heads of state Qaddafi would welcome to summits in Sirte.

At the airport, to the south of Sirte, Suleiman Ali, an NTC fighter who said he had been in the city for a month, said talk of a final push was premature.

“They are stupid,” he said, referring to NTC commanders attacking Sirte from the east. “You cannot get in with 15 men. They do not see the balance of their force and our force.”

The battle for the city has come at a high cost for civilians. They have been trapped by the fighting with dwindling supplies of food and water and no proper medical facilities to treat the wounded.

Qaddafi’s own tribe

Many of Sirte’s residents are members of Qaddafi’s own tribe, making the city a test of the new NTC’s ability to unite the country and reconcile its fractious tribes.

People fleeing the city blamed the NTC forces, and the NATO alliance whose warplanes have been flying sorties over the city, for the death and destruction.

Hajj Abdullah, in his late 50s, was at a Red Cross post on the edge of Sirte where food was being handed out. He said he had just escaped the city.

“My 11 year old died from the NATO rockets ... I buried him where he died,” because it was too dangerous to go to the cemetery, he said. “There are random strikes in the city. People are dying in their houses.”

He said many civilians were unable to leave. “If someone doesn’t have petrol and has small kids, what does he do? ... The ones who stayed behind are the poor and the weak.”

A NATO spokesman on Wednesday said the alliance’s warplanes had not made any strikes on Sirte since last weekend, and that they were doing everything possible to protect civilians.

But that message had not reached angry residents. “NATO is the one who hit the innocent. We will never forgive them,” said a 23-year-old from Sirte called Mohammed.

Anti-Qaddafi forces say they are trying to liberate the people of Sirte from a small number of pro-Qaddafi hardliners and mercenaries.

But residents say ordinary people have taken up arms in Sirte to fight the attackers -- suggesting the battle could be prolonged and, even once it is over, that there will be lasting hostility towards Libya’s new rulers.

“There are no (pro-Qaddafi) brigades. You know, the ones who are is fighting in Sirte are the people who lost their brothers, their mothers and sisters,” said Mohammed.

“The families are fighting for their homes and their children who have died.”

NATO operations in Libya

With NATO’s campaign in Libya nearing an end, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will fly to the allied command in Naples on Thursday to confer with officers overseeing the air war, officials said.

Panetta called the NATO intervention a “remarkable achievement” and hailed the fall of Qaddafi’s regime after talks Thursday with fellow NATO defense ministers in Brussels, AFP reported.

The Pentagon chief told a news conference that NATO allies were weighing when to halt the bombing campaign and that it would depend in part on the strength of local forces on the ground, who have encircled Qaddafi’s loyalists.

Panetta would hold talks with Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, who is running the Libya air operation, and U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of allied joint force command in Naples, officials said.

NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, based in Mons, Belgium, was also scheduled to join in the discussions.

Speaking to reporters earlier on his trip, Panetta said he also wanted to express appreciation to U.S. and allied officers at the Naples command for their role in what he called a “successful” operation.

“I want to thank the operations people that work there in Naples,” Panetta said. “They did a great job.”

After knocking out air defense sites in Libya at the outset of the campaign, the U.S. military assumed a low-profile role in the NATO operation with the British and French taking the lead.

The United States, which carried out about a quarter of all sorties in the six-month campaign, provided crucial support in the form of airborne refueling of fighter aircraft, surveillance planes -- including unmanned robotic drones -- and specialists to draw up bombing targets.

The United States conducted about 75 percent of all refueling missions and 70-80 percent of all surveillance and reconnaissance flights, U.S. officials said.

The American military currently has more than 70 aircraft deployed in the operation and more than 7,000 personnel have taken part, officials said.

The Libya campaign offers a stark contrast to the Kosovo war in 1999. In Libya, European and Canadian aircraft dropped 95 percent of all precision guided munitions while in Kosovo, 95 percent of all munitions were launched by U.S. pilots, a senior NATO diplomat said.