Libyan revolutionary forces open fire during clashes with Kadafi loyalists… (Asmaa Waguih / Reuters )
Reporting from Surt, Libya — Revolutionary forces loyal to Libya's provisional government pressed their assault Wednesday on Moammar Kadafi's hometown, pounding loyalist positions with rockets and mortar fire as plumes of smoke rose from the besieged city.
The forces again met stiff resistance from Kadafi loyalists taking cover in buildings and other urban hideouts in Surt.
But the revolutionary militiamen said progress was steady and victory inevitable as the two sides clashed in gun battles on contested streets.
Civilians continued to stream out of the city, describing a humanitarian disaster unfolding in a town lacking food, water and electricity and patrolled by Kadafi loyalist troops. Some spoke of revenge killings in the battered town.
Overhead, warplanes of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization also assaulted the Kadafi stronghold.
"We heard on their radio that the [Kadafi] loyalists want to rocket our position," said one revolutionary fighter, who then alluded to the NATO jets above. "But we think they are out of ammunition, and they can't while butterflies are in the sky."
Fighters trained Grad rockets, mortars and other weapons systems on loyalist positions, and similar arsenals were arrayed against the revolutionary militias. Much of the weaponry being used is notoriously inaccurate, and the operators often have little training, raising concern about civilian casualties.
"We can see their rocket launchers [4 1/2 miles] away, and this is what we are trying to hit," said one militia fighter, Abdul Magid Zuwas, 27, decked out in a purple cowboy hat, skinny jeans and a pink T-shirt and holding green U.S. Army-issue binoculars.
Gun trucks filled with troops headed to Surt, piled high with rockets, mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and bullets. Accompanying them were tanks flying the tricolor flag of the movement that ousted Kadafi. The revolutionary forces, which just six months ago gave the appearance of a motley gathering of civilians toting rifles, looked to be a formidable military force.
Fighters who had spent months pushing from the east also joined the assault this week, with brigades from Misurata on the western and southern fronts attacking Surt.
Fleeing families queued up at checkpoints, desperate and terrified.
"They are bombing us, and women and children are dying. Last night it got too bad; our neighbors' house was hit, so we decided to run," an elderly woman said, wrapping her scarf to hide her face.
Checkpoint guards examined all vehicles, going through a farmer's stacked hay bales, emptying suitcases and searching under car hoods for hidden weapons.
"We have 10,000 names of wanted men, so we have to check everyone carefully," said a man issuing permission slips to fleeing families.
More than 3,000 men, women and children have fled in the last three days.
"There is no medicine, no food, no electricity. It is a disaster," said Mohammed Omar Farjan, 37, his two young boys sitting wide-eyed with their mother and aunts in the back of his car.
Many residents reported that Kadafi forces controlling the central areas of the city had tried to impede their escape.
"They took all of our identity cards. They shouted and cursed at us, calling us rats and traitors," said Milad Ali, 22. "Three days ago, a group of 30 cars tried to leave the main gate; they took all of their cards and sent them to their homes."
As cities across the country fell to the revolutionaries, Kadafi regime loyalists fled to his hometown, where many residents continue to profess allegiance to the "Brother Leader." Most fleeing residents viewed the checkpoints with fear and suspicion, and many remained unsympathetic to the opposition.
"We have been living in hell," an elderly woman said angrily to a checkpoint guard as her husband entreated her to stay quiet. Another woman sat in her seat, paralyzed with fear, when a guard asked her to step out of the car.
"Here, most people still want Kadafi," a checkpoint guard said. "When we liberated other cities, they would be so happy to see us they would kiss the new flag."
A few miles away, an army of volunteers from Misurata supported the revolutionary fighters by running makeshift kitchens. Huge vats of water bubbled as men used both arms to stir giant pots of rice. A bathtub full of chopped and boiled onions sat in a corner.
"We feed lunch and dinner to approximately 3,000 fighters a day," said volunteer cook Abdul Hamid, 62.
Checkpoint guard Zuwaid Gharbi said his new duties were better than when he was putting his carpentry skills to use: Earlier in the war, he made more than 2,000 coffins for fallen fighters.
"We do everything we can to help," he said.
Sherlock is a special correspondent.
Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Cairo contributed to this report.