Fighters for Libya’s new rulers have been forced to regroup on the edge of Sirte, after pro-Qaddafi snipers halted a two-week old assault on the ousted despot’s hometown.
And in Bani Walid, the only other stronghold of forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi, the National Transitional Council’s (NTC) fighters appeared to have opened another front on Friday.
NTC abuse of prisoners
As the fighting raged, Human Rights Watch called on the NTC to stop militia groups from making arbitrary arrests and abusing prisoners, including with beatings and electric shocks.
The New York-based group said it had visited 20 detention facilities in Tripoli and interviewed 53 detainees.
“The detainees reported mistreatment in six facilities, including beatings and the use of electric shock, and some of them showed scars to support the claims. None had been brought before a judge,” HRW said in a statement.
“After all that Libyans suffered in Muammar Qaddafi’s jails, it’s disheartening that some of the new authorities are subjecting detainees to arbitrary arrest and beatings today,” Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said in the statement.
As the NTC forces faced stiff resistance on the battlefield Friday, doubts grew that Qaddafi’s vocal spokesman Mussa Ibrahim had been captured after reports he had been seized while disguised as a woman, complete with veil.
NTC commanders said late Thursday they received reports from fighters on the ground that Ibrahim had been seized outside Sirte, where his loyalists have been under siege for the past week.
But the fighters’ high command in Libya’s third-largest city Misrata said it had been informed Ibrahim had not been captured, although members of his family were.
AFP correspondents on fronts east and west of Sirte said the former rebels had made no advances.
In the fiercest fighting for days, the NTC fighters pounded Sirte with 106mm anti-tank guns, rocket-launchers and machine guns, while Qaddafi loyalists hit back with mortar, machine-gun and sniper fire.
One NTC fighter was killed and 11 wounded, a medic said, as NATO warplanes and drones flew overhead without striking.
NTC fighters held the line on the eastern outskirts of the city amid some sporadic artillery shelling and gunfire, an AFP correspondent said.
“If we want we can destroy Sirte completely. We have enough ammunition and shells to fight for 10 years,” said Nasser Obeidi, leader of a group operating four Russian-built 130mm artillery cannon.
“But we are allowing civilians to leave the city before we start a big assault. People are leaving the city daily, sometimes in large numbers,” he told AFP.
The prolonged battle for Qaddafi’s hometown, besieged from three fronts, has raised concern for civilians trapped inside the city of about 100,000 people.
Cars streamed out of Sirte from the early hours and into the afternoon on Friday. Shelling and tank fire continued from both sides on the eastern and western fronts, black smoke rose from the centre of town and NATO planes flew overhead.
Medical workers at a field hospital near Sirte said four fighters with the interim authorities were killed by pro-Gaddafi snipers and 20 others were wounded.
A Reuters team on the edge of Sirte heard five huge explosions just before sundown. It was not immediately clear what had caused the explosions.
Fighting was particularly heavy near a roundabout on the eastern outskirts of the city, where forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) have been pinned down for five days.
Some fighters again fled the frontline under the fire.
“It’s difficult, difficult," said anti-Qaddafi fighter Rami Moftah. “You know, with the snipers. You can't find them. Yesterday there was no ammunition. It was finished. I swear to God. If the Qaddafi people knew that they would have come and taken Sirte from us.”
Several residents told Reuters they were leaving Sirte because they had not eaten for days.
“I am not scared. I am hungry,” said Ghazi Abdul-Wahab, a Syrian who has lived in the town for 40 years.
Abdul-Wahab said he had been sleeping in the streets with his family after a NATO air strike hit a building next to his house, making him fear his home could also be struck.
“People inside are scared about their houses. People want to protect their houses,” he said, adding that some locals may fight because they have heard the NTC wants to kill them.
At least 15 civilian cars were seen leaving Sirte’s eastern gate, while about 1,000 evacuees were registered 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of the city, NTC officials said, adding they were detained 15 suspected Qaddafi supporters.
In Benghazi, Red Cross official Abdelhamid al-Mendi said more than 50,000 Libyans have fled their homes since the war began in February.
“The numbers of impressive, but the situation is under control, thanks to the efforts of the Libyan Red Crescent, aid from the international Red Cross” and other organizations.
Obeidi acknowledged, however, that Qaddafi forces had deployed snipers in the city which was troubling the fighters.
But a former colonel in Qaddafi’s army who is now an NTC fighter supervising cannon outside Sirte said his forces were determined to win.
In Bani Walid, a heavy barrage of rockets and artillery hit NTC positions from the west, joining other fire that has been coming for days from the south.
“Today is the most intense attack we have faced since we came here,” said NTC field commander Abdelbaset Tarhauni, as NATO fighter jets buzzed overhead.
An AFP correspondent saw one dead and six wounded NTC fighters from the attacks.