REPORTING FROM TRIPOLI, LIBYA -- Forces loyal to Libya’s provisional government launched a renewed assault Saturday on the besieged coastal city of Surt, Moammar Kadafi’s hometown and a holdout bastion of support for the ousted leader.
The attackers were meeting fierce resistance from pro-Kadafi militiamen in the form of sniper fire, according to reports from the scene.
Reuters reported that huge plumes of black smoke arose from the town as anti-Kadafi fighters massed in a square less than a mile from the center of Surt, which has been under siege for more than a week.
In recent days, anti-Kadafi troops have been positioning tanks, artillery, antiaircraft guns and other weapons for a long-anticipated second push toward Surt.
An initial offensive last week was repelled as pro-Kadafi forces launched rockets and mortars and fired from sniper positions, rebel commanders said.
Libya’s provisional rulers had given Surt’s defenders until Saturday to surrender or face an all-out attack. There was no sign of capitulation from the defenders of Surt, situated about 230 miles east of Tripoli, the capital, along the Mediterranean coast.
Hundreds of civilians have been fleeing in recent days from Surt, where the humanitarian situation was said to be grave, with shortages of food, gasoline and other staples. Pro-Kadafi militias controlled the streets, fleeing residents said. The city has been largely cut off from the outside world.
Reports indicated that NATO warplanes were heard overhead as the fighters advanced. NATO has mounted a months-long air war aimed at protecting Libyan civilians. Kadafi stalwarts have accused NATO of acting as an air force for the former rebels.
During a 24-hour period ending Saturday, warplanes struck a series of targets -- including an ammunition storage facility, an antiaircraft gun, a command and control center and two armed vehicles -- that had been used “to threaten the civilian population” of Surt, NATO said in a statement. NATO cited reports from Surt of “executions, hostage-taking and the calculated targeting of individuals, families and communities within the city.”
Surt once had a population of about 100,000, but many if not most of the civilians have escaped the town, which is almost encircled by anti-Kadafi forces.
Former rebels loyal to Libya’s transitional administration have said they would do everything possible to avoid more civilian casualties. But both sides are using Grad rockets and other weapons systems known for their lack of accuracy.
More than six months of fighting in Libya have left at least 30,000 people dead, officials say.
Rebel forces took Tripoli last month after several days of fighting. Kadafi, his family members, close associates and loyal troops are believed to have fled the capital.
Kadafi himself remains a fugitive but has called on his supporters to mount a guerrilla war against Libya’s new rulers.
Surt is one of two major strongholds still in the hands of Kadafi loyalists. The other pro-Kadafi bastion is the city of Bani Walid, a tribal enclave southeast of Tripoli. Anti-Kadafi forces have been routed and sent into headlong retreat after several chaotic efforts to overrun Bani Walid.
Libya’s provisional government says it has asserted almost complete control over another former pro-Kadafi redoubt, the desert town of Sabha, a Sahara crossroads some 500 miles south of Tripoli.
Libya’s new rulers say all of Libya must be freed from Kadafi’s forces before the country can be declared “liberated” and a timetable can be set for elections and the writing of a constitution.
The stiff resistance from pro-Kadafi fighters in Surt and Bani Walid has raised fears of a long-term insurgency in Libya, similar to what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan after rulers were toppled. But Libya’s transitional rulers have vowed that the armed opposition will soon be crushed, and the new government’s tri-color flag will rise in both holdout cities, enabling Libya to complete a transition to democratic rule.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: Anti-Kadafi fighters fire rockets near Surt. Credit: Goran Tomasevic / Reuters