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LIBYA: Fighters make gains in Kadafi's hometown

October 8, 2011 |  4:27 pm

REPORTING FROM SURT, LIBYA -- After weeks of failed offensives, insubstantial incursions and withering counterattacks, it seemed Saturday that the end game had begun in earnest for Moammar Kadafi’s hometown, Surt.

Street by street, fighters for Libya’s transitional government captured a residential district that had been riddled with loyalist snipers.

“Kadafi’s men are 300 meters away,” a fighter shouted over the loud judder of machine-gun fire, pointing to the end of the street where smoke curled from a mortar explosion.

Heavy bullets ricocheted off the eucalyptus trees that lined the streets, snapping large branches. Rocket-propelled grenades exploded, leaving puffs of black smoke against the blue sky.

The district, a newly built complex of seven hundred homes unimaginatively named “700,” had been Kadafi’s pet project. The houses, spacious and brimming with a sense of wealth, were reportedly endowed to members of his tribe and key supporters of the longtime Libyan strongman.

On Saturday, the homes sat abandoned and wrecked. Green flags — a symbol of support for the former regime that had proudly been flown from every home — lay torn on the dusty ground. Children’s stuffed toys, shoes and bedding were strewn in the street, telling of a rushed escape.

The long-awaited attack had begun at dawn. Battered tanks, rocket-launcher trucks and fighters moved in formation across the expanse of flat scrubland toward the “southern gate” of the city: buildings fortified by an encircling wall.

“Ciao ciao, Kadafi!” screamed fighter Salah Ismail, manically exhilarated as he sent a rocket crashing into a building on the horizon.

But for all the optimism, there may still be a hard fight ahead for the final quadrants of the city. Toward the end of every fighting day in the last week, loyalists have sprung lethal counterattacks. Five in the afternoon is “death o’clock,” said the fighters for Libya’s transitional government.

In the space of two days, more than 300 fighters for the transitional government were injured, and at least 16 killed.

“They are going to fight to the death,” said Mohammed Habi, 27, referring to the loyalist militias, composed of Kadafi soldiers and civilians who loathe the ragtag brigades that have upended their lives. “They know they have nothing left to live for.”


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-- Ruth Sherlock

Photo: Fighters for the Libyan transitional government fire toward Moammar Kadafi loyalists in Surt on Saturday. Credit: Manu Brabo / Associated Press