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Libya: Rebels seize Sirte and push west aided by air strikes

Reuters /Suhaib Salem

Rebels celebrate in Brega March 27, 2011. Libyan rebels reached the oil terminal town of Brega on Sunday after routing government forces from a strategic eastern town, as Muammar Gaddafi's troops pounded the main rebel stronghold in the west.

, 2011

Libyan rebels are claiming to have captured the town of Sirte, the home of embattled Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi.

Shamsi Abdul Molah, a spokesman for the opposition's National Council, told Al Jazeera that opposition forces had moved into the city at approximately 1.30am last night (local time).

"[They say that] they found it an unarmed city. They had no problem getting in there, they did not encounter any resistance," reported Sue Turton, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Benghazi. Celebratory gunfire was head in Benghazi, the opposition's stronghold in the east of the country, as news filtered in of the taking of Gaddafi's hometown.

Al Jazeera has not been able to independently verify the report, and the Reuters news agency has quoted a witness in Sirte as saying that the city is still under government control.

A column of military vehicles was seen leaving Sirte on Sunday, heading west towards the capital, Tripoli.

Clashes between pro- and anti-government forces continue in other areas, meanwhile. In Misurata, nine people were killed overnight by snipers and shelling by pro-Gaddafi forces, according to a doctor there.

The claim of the opposition taking Sirte, which could not be independently verified, came as their forces, bolstered by coalition air strikes, pushed westwards and seized control of the key towns of Bin Jawad, Ras Lanuf, Uqayla, Brega and Ajdabiya in a rapid advance along the coastline.

Coalition air strikes against targets in Tripoli also resumed on Sunday night with explosions heard in the Libyan capital.

Al Jazeera's James Bays has been following the rebel offensive which has seen them claim a string of towns and key oil facilities since Friday.

Our correspondent said Gaddafi's forces appeared to be withdrawing eastwards. Those still in Bin Jawad surrendered without a fight, Bays said.

"It seems there has a been withdrawal and a surrender of Gaddafi forces, not a battle," Bays said. "They removed some of their vehicles that were not bombed further up the road but they removed these vehicles in haste."

Rebels were intent on pressing onwards in the direction of Tripoli, Bays said.

The opposition's National Council now says that it expecting a major battle to occur in the area around Tripoli, as opposed to at Sirte, where stiffer resistance had been expected.

Convoy leaves Sirte

There were reports on Sunday of a column of military vehicles including truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns seen leaving Sirte in the direction of Tripoli, accompanied by dozens of civilian cars carrying families, according to a Reuters reporter in the vicinity.

The rebels' advance along the coast has triggered exuberant celebrations in towns along the route such as Ajdabiya with rebel fighters firing their weapons in celebration.

In Ras Lanuf, a major oil exporting terminal, Bays said Gaddafi fighters appeared to have withdrawn with their heavy armour.

"[There are] no signs of Gaddafi's forces here," Bays reported. "What they left behind is here, some of their weaponry is here, some of their armaments are here. But they have not left their tanks behind or any of their heavy armour, just some of the ammunition has been left behind, suggesting it was a pretty speedy retreat."

But there was renewed fighting on Sunday in the rebel-held western city of Misurata, which had endured days of bombardment, punctuated by coalition air strikes against pro-Gaddafi military targets.

A rebel fighter told Reuters that rebels were fighting government forces in the centre of the town.

"We heard tanks, mortars and light weapons being used," he said by telephone.

A resident told Reuters that 24 people had been wounded in mortar attacks by government forces, while Al Jazeera's Turton reported that nine people were killed in overnight violence.

French and British warplanes launched strikes against government targets near Misurata on Saturday, temporarily halting the fighting.

The French armed forces said around 20 French aircraft supported by an AWACS surveillance plane struck targets during the day, including five Galeb fighter jets and two MI-35 helicopters on the ground outside Misurata.

British missile strikes also destroyed three armoured vehicles in Misurata and two more in Ajdabiya, the Royal Air Force said in a statement.

Ahmed Al Misrati, a pro-democracy activist, speaking from Misurata, told Al Jazeera that the town was "besieged from all sides".

"Since morning [Misurata] has been under heavy gunfire and heavy bombardment ... by tanks or mortar shells," said Al Misrati. "They [Gaddafi troops] are also stationed in other rooftops, especially the high buildings."

NATO command

Meanwhile, NATO on Sunday assumed full command of coalition air operations in Libya.

"We have directed NATO's top operational commander to begin executing this operation with immediate effect," Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary general, said in a statement

"Our goal is to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas under threat from the Gaddafi regime."

The operations will be led by Canadian General Charles Bouchard, NATO said.

The transatlantic organisation had been manning naval operations to enforce an arms embargo against the Tripoli regime, but had agreed to take to the air to enforce a no-fly zone to protect civilians against bombings.

Barack Obama, the US president, said on Saturday that the military mission in Libya was succeeding.

"Because we acted quickly, a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided and the lives of countless civilians - innocent men, women and children - have been saved," Obama said.

But Obama reiterated that the military mission was clear and focused and that the role of American forces had been limited. "Our military has provided unique capabilities at the beginning, but this is now a broad, international effort," he said.

Last week Libyan officials said nearly 100 civilians had been killed in the coalition strikes.


Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Story from Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera / 28 Mar 2011 05:55



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