Rebels confident of capturing Gaddafi towns despite setbacks
Libyan rebels said Saturday they were prepared to push deeper into the towns of Bani Walid and Sirte, hours after they had to reteat from areas of both cities due to counterattacks by loyalists to fugitive leader Moamer Gaddafi, dpa reported.
"The northern part of Bani Walid is completely under our control," said the military spokesman for the rebels' Transitional National Council (TNC), Ahmed Bani.
He added that the inhospitable nature of Bani Walid, a mountain enclave, hampered the rebel forces' progress inside the town, located about 150 kilometres south-east of the capital Tripoli.
The rebel forces, stationed on the outskirts of Bani Walid, were Saturday the target of a rocket attack mounted by pro-Gaddafi fighters from inside the town, according to broadcaster Al Jazeera.
Unconfirmed reports said the retreat by the rebels from parts of Bani Walid was to prepare the ground for NATO forces to strike the area where pro-Gaddafi forces are believed to be deeply entrenched.
"We have received orders to retreat. We have been hit by many rockets. We will come back later," Assad al-Hamuri, one of the rebel fighters withdrawing from Bani Walid, was quoted as saying by the pro-rebel Free Libya TV.
Meanwhile, Libyan rebels claimed advances inside Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown, despite stiff resistance by Gaddafi loyalists.
The rebels, at pains to overrun one of Gaddafi's last support bastions, say they have seized control of more than 70 per cent of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast, Al Jazeera reported.
"We are in Sirte in order to rid its people of the oppression of the Gaddafi Battalions," a rebel fighter said, as his comrades flashed a victory sign.
He added that rebel flags had been hoisted over several buildings in Sirte.
The rebel forces had to pull out of from parts in Sirte on Friday after coming under mortar and rocket barrages from pro-Gaddafi fighters.
In an apparent bid to subdue the Gaddafi loyalists, the rebel commanders said they had rushed military reinforcements to the Sirte front, where an estimated 6,000 anti-Gaddafi fighters are already positioned.
Meanwhile, the rebel forces captured the airport and a military base on the outskirts of Sirte and moved towards the centre of the town, rebel commanders said on Saturday.
They added that their forces had seized control of the region of Hirawa, about 80 kilometres east of Sirte, opening a new pathway into Gaddafi's birthplace.
"In few days' time, the picture will change completely in Bani Walid and Sirte, in our favour," Ahmed Bani, the TNC military spokesman, told a press conference in Tripoli.
He predicted that all remaining towns controlled by Gaddafi loyalists would fall to rebel forces by the end of September.
Apparently buoyed by the rebels' setback, Gaddafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim claimed Saturday that Gaddafi loyalists had enough military hardware "to fight on for months."
"We gathered arms and equipment in preparation for a long war," he told Syria-based Al-Rai television.
"The battle is far from over," Ibrahim added. "We assure everybody that the Sirte and Bani Walid fronts are strong, despite the heavy, unbelievable and merciless NATO bombardment on hospitals, families and schools."
Moussa claimed that Gaddafi was personally leading the fight against the rebels.
Gaddafi has not been seen in public since the rebels captured Tripoli in late August, although his spokesman has repeatedly claimed that he is still in Libya.
Moussa also alleged that around 354 civilians were killed Friday in NATO strikes over Sirte.
For its part, NATO said it would assess allegations that its airstrikes had claimed civilians' lives in Sirte, but noted that similar accusations in the past have rarely proven to be true.
"Most often, they are revealed to be unfounded or inconclusive," the Western alliance's spokesman, Roland Lavoie, said Saturday.
"As is the case with all NATO strikes, a thorough damage assessment is conducted afterwards; this will allow us to ascertain whether these allegations are founded or not," he added from Brussels.