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Libyan fighters taking Kadafi's hometown street by street

Optimism rises in the ranks battling to take Surt from Moammar Kadafi loyalists, but there may still be a hard fight ahead for the final quadrants of the city.

October 09, 2011|By Ruth Sherlock, Los Angeles Times
  • Libyan revolutionary fighters fire shells from a tank against loyalists during the battle for Surt, Moammar Kadafi's hometown.
Libyan revolutionary fighters fire shells from a tank against loyalists… (Mohamed Messara, European…)

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 machine-gun fire, pointing to the end of the street where smoke curled from a mortar round 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 700 homes, unimaginatively named "700," had been Kadafi's pet project.

The houses, spacious and exuding an aura of wealth, were reportedly endowed to members of his tribe and key supporters of the longtime Libyan strongman. The outline of Africa was emblazoned on the green walls of the neighborhood, a reminder of Kadafi's self-bestowed title as the "king of kings of Africa."

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. 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 revolutionary fighters moved in formation across the expanse of flat scrubland toward the "southern gate" of the city: buildings fortified by an encircling wall.

Hundreds of rockets ripped across the sky and the deafening boom of tank guns filled the air. Men in battered green helmets hunkered in the sand amid streaks of red tracer fire from incoming bullets.

"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.

At the entrance to the Wagadugu conference center Friday, little more than a mile from the city center, sniper bullets cracked thick and fast through the air from all directions as fighters sought to breach the walls. Mortar rounds landed close, flinging shrapnel through the air.

Terrified men crouched with their backs to the complex wall. Trapped, they sang the words "God is great, God is great" again and again as if trying to weave a spell through prayer to keep them safe. In the crowd, men were felled by high-velocity sniper rounds.

In the space of two days, more than 300 revolutionary fighters were wounded, 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."

Sherlock is a special correspondent.

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