Fighters allied with Libya's transitional leadership are deployed… (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters )
Reporting from outside Surt, Libya — Their hometown of Misurata has largely been reduced to rubble, but the fighters say they haven't come to Moammar Kadafi's birthplace to wreak havoc.
They say the several thousand troops fighting under the flag of Libya's revolutionary regime, most of them from Misurata, seek control of Surt, one of three major bastions still loyal to the ousted longtime ruler.
"This is about Kadafi and Libya, not about the people of Surt," Mohammed Enhaisi, 27, a tractor driver from Misurata turned field commander, said Tuesday at a heavily guarded intersection about two miles from downtown Surt.
The Misurata brigades paint their vehicles coal black and have earned a reputation as relentless warriors, a status they value.
Resistance from Kadafi loyalists has been fierce. Since their offensive began six days ago, the Misurata troops have had to fall back. They have lost more than 40 fighters and dozens have been wounded.
Late Tuesday, each side fired occasional volleys across the other's nearby lines, intended mostly, it seemed, as reminders that no one had gone home.
Kadafi lavished funds and prestige on otherwise remote Surt, about halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi along the Mediterranean coast, casting the onetime fishing town grandiosely as a kind of pan-African capital, an exalted state it never came close to achieving. Kadafi's rubber-stamp people's congress met here, though most Libyans seemed to pay little attention.
Misurata, meantime, became an urban combat zone this year as rebels pushed back regime forces in an epic battle that ultimately saw the government troops ejected. The rebels barricaded the streets with dirt-filled shipping containers, brought up from the port. The city, however, was left in ruins, block after block of blasted storefronts and collapsed buildings.
Though they profess to want to minimize damage in Surt, the anti-Kadafi fighters may be preparing a major attack using the kinds of weapons that caused so much destruction in Misurata.
On Tuesday, fighters seemed to be positioning tanks, heavy artillery, truck-mounted rocket launchers and antiaircraft guns, among other weaponry — none of it especially precise.
"We'll give them a few days and then hit them strong, by surprise," confided one fighter.
Civilians have been pouring out of battered Surt in recent days, anticipating the worst in a city that is running low on food and other essentials, and has largely lost communication with the outside world. Fleeing residents said the place was on the verge of chaos, with edgy Kadafi militiamen in charge and shells and bullets flying about, even as North Atlantic Treaty Organization warplanes continued an aerial assault under a United Nations mandate to protect civilians.
"I don't think a tree will be left standing," said Abdullah Ali Hamadi, 27, who was in his cramped sedan along with seven family members, including his 2-year-old daughter, Dehani, cradled in his arms as he answered questions at a checkpoint on the edge of town. "The most important thing now is peace of mind."
Revolutionary fighters suspect that some Kadafi loyalists are sneaking out, hoping to escape unnoticed. A pickup carrying a handcuffed prisoner passed by. But the attackers said they were encouraging innocent civilians to depart, and sympathized with their plight.
"There are a lot of people from Misurata in Surt," said Enhaisi, the rebel field commander at the intersection.
Fighters suspect that one of Kadafi's sons, Mutassim, a military commander, is leading the loyalists inside the town, though reported sightings of Kadafis have proved unreliable since the ex-leader and his family fled Tripoli, the capital, last month.
Earlier Tuesday, word had spread near a bridge on the western outskirts of town that a pro-Kadafi tank was approaching, firing its large cannon randomly. Revolutionary fighters said they disabled the tank with rocket fire, though the two-man crew managed to escape and scamper back to town.
The tank became an odd war trophy. It was enveloped in a kind of metal grating, atop which were hung sheepskins, complete with hooves.
"We thought this was some kind of Kadafi sorcery," said Ahmed Ali Safrun, a Misurata educator who stood atop the tank, posing with comrades for photos. "But then we realized this was camouflage against NATO planes."
The 55-year-old Safrun, who was among mostly youthful fighters, said the elation of the battle had made him feel younger "by the day." He made no predictions of swift victory, though he exuded confidence.
"This could last a week, this could last a month," Safrun said. "You don't know. They're fighting for their reputations. And this is the last chapter."