Anti-Qaddafi forces on Wednesday urged NATO to intensify its air war as they took heavy losses in a push on the ousted Libyan despot’s birthplace, Sirte, and his other remaining bastion, Bani Walid.
Wednesday’s fighting was so intense that the fighters of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya’s interim ruling body, had to retreat three kilometers (two miles) outside the eastern edge of Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown.
“There were heavy clashes today. Our men came under heavy attack,” said the commander, who asked not to be named.
“Fighting was particularly intense around the port and on the eastern outskirts of Sirte.”
NTC fighters captured the port of Sirte, in the east of the city, two days ago, marking a major victory for them in the battle for the control of Qaddafi’s bastion.
It was unclear late Wednesday whether the port was still under the control of the fighters, but the commander said the NTC troops were still present there.
“It is becoming a day-to-day fight. One day we are winning, the next day they are winning,” he said.
While the fugitive Qaddafi’s whereabouts remain unknown, Libya’s defense ministry spokesman said one of the deposed leader's sons, Seif al-Islam, was in Bani Walid and other, Mutassim, in Sirte.
Along with his father and former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, Seif is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.
NTC commander's death
Among those killed in the rocket barrage at Bani Walid was senior commander Daou al-Salhine al-Jadak, whose car was struck by a rocket as he headed towards the front, NTC chief negotiator Abdullah Kenshil told AFP.
Jadak, one of the highest ranking NTC commanders on that front, who hailed from the town, told AFP two days before his death that he had been imprisoned for more than 18 years for helping organise a 1993 rebellion.
An AFP correspondent said that despite heavy use of tanks, rocket launchers and artillery, the NTC forces had not advanced from positions held for the past few days in the desert town 170 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Tripoli.
“There is always incoming missile and artillery fire. We are returning fire with heavy weapons but we are not sending in infantry. We are waiting for reinforcements,” Captain Walid Khaimej told AFP.
“NATO is here but is not doing enough. They take out the rocket launchers firing at us, but they are immediately replaced. We need more help from NATO.”
Under a U.N. mandate, the alliance has been giving air support to the popular revolt that erupted in February and forced Qaddafi out of Tripoli and into hiding last month.
Its daily operational updates suggest it has scaled down the intensity of its strikes: they report attacks on targets in Bani Walid on just one of the past three days.
But Colonel Roland Lavoie, the air campaign's military spokesman, said: “NATO has not reduced its activity in Libya,” noting alliance aircraft had conducted at least 100 sorties per day in the past few days.
“The number of strikes depends on the danger against the civilian population, in conformity with our mandate,” Lavoie told AFP in an email.
In a separate incident, three fighters of Libya’s new rulers were killed in “friendly fire” Wednesday when they were shelled by a tank positioned behind them at the frontline in eastern Sirte, he added.
Thousands of fearful civilians have been fleeing Sirte, 360 kilometers east of Tripoli, as the new regime's forces close in from the east, south and west.
Meanwhile, interim justice minister Mohammed al-Alagi told reporters in Tripoli that Libya’s new authorities were ready to assist if asked to provide people for questioning over the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.
Prosecutors in Scotland said Monday they have formally asked the NTC to help the probe into the attack on Pan Am flight 103, which killed 270 people when it exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie on December 21, 1988.