Rebels backed by NATO bombers struck at loyalist troops dug in and around Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte on Wednesday, as refugees streamed out of the besieged bastion fearing a bloody showdown in the coming days.
NATO planes bombed Gaddafi forces near the city on Tuesday, targeting tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as military facilities.
They also hit targets in the area of Bani Walid, another Gaddafi stronghold 150 km. southeast of Tripoli. Anti- Gaddafi fighters said on the same day that they had advanced to within 30 km. of the desert town.
Daniel L. Byman, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said the the battle for Sirte would hinge on whether loyalists there insisted on waging an aggressive last stand.
“If they stay and fight it will be a bloody, very difficult battle, perhaps even houseto- house fighting. But the tale of this war has been one of defections,” he told The Jerusalem Post from Washington.
“The question is: What would it take for them to defect? A few will be diehards, of course, but is there a way to convince the others not to fight?” Byman asked. “Already we know the opposition has been trying to cut deals with them. There’s also a question of amnesty – do you pay-off certain leaders, or perhaps make promises of power? “Militarily, the people in Sirte are almost certainly going to lose. So they have a real advantage in cutting a deal if they can. There’s a real incentive on both sides to cut a deal, primarily because there’s a real question of who’s going to win political power that hasn’t been decided,” he said.
On Wednesday, National Transitional Council fighters said they clashed with Gaddafi forces patrolling west of Sirte. One fighter for the opposition forces, which forced Gaddafi into hiding last week, said he doubted people in the city would willingly join the revolt.
“There will be a big fight for Sirte. It’s a dangerous city. It’s unlikely to rise up. A lot of people there support Gaddafi. It’s too close to Gaddafi and his family. It is still controlled by them,” he said.
There is no independent confirmation of conditions in Sirte, which was developed into a prosperous city of 100,000 during the 42 years Gaddafi ruled Libya. NTC officials say power and water are largely cut off, and supplies are low.
In Tripoli, after dawn, worshipers packed Martyrs’ Square, which was named Green Square in the Gaddafi era, chanting “Allahu Akbar, Libya is free.”
Fighters on rooftops guarded against any attack by Gaddafi loyalists, and sniffer dogs checked cars. Even the interim interior minister, Ahmed Darat, was searched.
Libyans who revolted against Gaddafi in February needed NATO air power to help them win, but, given their country’s unhappy colonial history, they remain wary of foreign meddling.
Their interim leaders, trying to heal a nation scarred by Gaddafi’s cruelly eccentric ways, may want United Nations help in setting up a new police force, but see no role for international peacekeepers or observers, a UN official said.
“They are very seriously interested in assistance with policing to get the public security situation under control and gradually develop a democratically accountable public security force,” Ian Martin, special UN envoy for post-conflict planning in Libya, said at the United Nations in New York.
“We don’t now expect military observers to be requested,” he said. “It’s very clear that the Libyans want to avoid any kind of military deployment of the UN or others.”
The NTC, keen to assert its grip and relieve hardship after six months of war, won a $1.55 billion cash infusion when the UN sanctions committee released banknotes in Britain in frozen Gaddafi accounts.
Paris has asked the committee to unfreeze 1.5b. euros of Libyan assets in France, a French government source said on Wednesday, adding that Libya has 7.6b. euros of assets parked in its country’s banks.
The source also said that Russia and China – which have not formally recognized the NTC – would send representatives to a “Friends of Libya” conference in Paris on Thursday to discuss support for political and economic rebuilding.
The timing of the meeting, on September 1, strikes a chord for many Libyans, who for four decades have been obliged to celebrate the date as the anniversary of the military coup that brought Col.Gaddafi to power in 1969.
NTC leaders have told their forces to treat prisoners with respect – in contrast with the reported killing and torture of detainees by Gaddafi’s forces – but Amnesty International said its staff had seen anti- Gaddafi fighters threaten and detain wounded opponents, notably black Libyans and foreigners.
“The council must do more to ensure that their fighters do not abuse detainees, especially the most vulnerable ones such as black Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans,” Amnesty’s Claudio Cordone said in a statement after one incident in Tripoli.
“Many risk reprisals as a result of allegations that Gaddafi forces used African mercenaries to commit widespread violations during the conflict.”