Anti-Qaddafi forces overran Sirte’s port on Tuesday, but in the other stronghold of supporters of the ousted Libyan leader, the new regime’s fighters were beaten back by fierce resistance.
On the political front, a member of Libya’s new ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) said formation of a transitional government, already delayed by disputes over power-sharing, had been postponed until they had won control of the entire country.
In a radio message from the Syria-based al-Rai TV, Muammar Qaddafi hailed the resistance put up in Bani Walid, where the NTC admitted they had been forced back by forces loyal to the toppled strongman.
Capturing the port at Sirte marked a key victory in the battle for control of Qaddafi’s birthplace, but intense fighting carried on inside the city.
Taking Sirte, 450 km east of Tripoli, would bring Libya’s new rulers closer to gaining control of the whole country, something still eluding them more than a month after their fighters seized the capital.
Hundreds of fearful civilians have fled Sirte, a sprawling Mediterranean city, as the new regime’s forces close in from east, south and west.
NTC fighter Fateh Marimri, who drove out of Sirte’s eastern gate in what he said was a captured Qaddafi 4X4, reported fierce fighting around the Mahari Hotel.
“They are using heavy weapons but we are not, as we want to cause minimum damage to civilians,” Marimri told AFP.
“They are now fighting us in civilian clothes and there are African mercenaries everywhere in Sirte.”
Humanitarian crisis in Sirte
The port and university lie on the northeastern side of Sirte but Qaddafi’s compound and military bunkers lie in the center and NTC fighters said they expected the fiercest resistance there.
Fleeing residents said Qaddafi’s forces had been trying to prevent people from leaving.
"There’s no food, no electricity; we were eating just bread," Saraj al-Tuweish, who got out with his extended family on Tuesday, told AFP.
"I've been trying for 10 days to get out and every time the army forced us back.
"We would go the checkpoint and they would refuse, they would shoot in the air. Today we used a dirt road early in the morning and we managed to escape."
The lack of clean drinking water has triggered an epidemic of water-borne diseases. An AFP correspondent saw dozens of children being treated at a clinic in the town of Harawa, 40 kilometers east of Sirte.
"We have medicines but no nurses to treat the constant flow of patients, mainly children, suffering from vomiting and gastrointestinal diseases," said Dr Valentina Rybakova, a Ukrainian working in Libya for eight years.
“This is a big humanitarian crisis. We are trying to get help from everybody but the main problem is that these people have no access to clean drinking water."
As the fighting raged in Sirte, a group of fighters from the Zintan Brigade discovered a huge weapons cache in a village south of the city, one of them told AFP.
"The stock is massive. Around 100 houses in the village were full of all kinds of ammunition," said Maatiz Saad.
"The stock is so big that we would need hundreds of pickup trucks to load it and move it out. Ammunition was stored even in the village hospital. There are bullets for all kinds of guns and hundreds of rockets."
Qaddafi’s radio message
“You should know that I am on the ground with you,” he said. “Through your jihad, you are imitating the exploits of your ancestors.”
“Heroes have resisted and fallen as martyrs and we too are awaiting martyrdom,” Qaddafi said.
The report by Arrai television could not be independently verified.
Arrai also broadcast footage of what it said was Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, dated Sept. 20, rallying his forces at an unidentified location.
“This land is the land of your forefathers. Don't hand it over,” Saif al-Islam, shouted to a crowd of followers.
NTC forces said the fierce resistance of Qaddafi loyalists had stalled their offensive in Bani Walid.
"NTC fighters pulled out from some areas they control in Bani Walid due to the intensity of fire,” said Abdallah Kenshil, the new government’s chief negotiator in abortive efforts to broker the town's surrender.
In Benghazi, NTC member Mustafa al-Huni said Libya’s new rulers had decided to postpone the formation of a transitional government until they had won control of the entire country.
NATO meanwhile urged Libya's new regime to make plans to destroy stockpiles of chemical weapons and nuclear-related agents amassed by Qaddafi. Washington said Tuesday it was working closely with the new regime to secure all arms stockpiles.
In a letter to the U.N. General Assembly meanwhile, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a staunch supporter of Qaddafi, said the Libyan conflict marked "a new cycle of colonial wars... with the sinister goal of refreshing the capitalist global system."
Meanwhile, Libya’s transitional government delivered 20 million dinars ($16 million) Tuesday to Sabha, a remote southern city beset by Qaddafi loyalists, hoping to bolster support for revolutionary forces.