September 16, 2011

Article at Washington Post

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Libyan fighters make concerted push on two Gaddafi bastions

TRIPOLI — Libyan fighters came under heavy fire from rockets, machine guns and snipers Friday as they tried to push into two key strongholds of former leader Moammar Gaddafi in a concerted attempt to crush resistance by his loyalists.

They reported progress on the outskirts of Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte, but in the desert oasis town Bani Walid, they had retreated by the end of the day after a chaotic advance.

There was more progress on the diplomatic front, with the U.N. General Assembly transferring Libya’s diplomatic credentials to the Transitional National Council, essentially recognizing it as the country’s lawful government.

The U.N. Security Council also unanimously passed a resolution to ease sanctions on Libya, including on its national oil company and central bank, and establish a U.N. mission there to help get the country back on its feet.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew into Tripoli to meet the new government, stopping to join Friday prayers and address a small crowd in the the city’s central Martyrs’ Square. He joined in calls for Gaddafi and his supporters to lay down their arms and warned the “oppressors” in Syria that they also would not survive.

Anti-Gaddafi forces had moved cautiously against the bastions of the former regime since taking Tripoli last month, keen to avoid civilian casualties and concerned about the resistance they might face. But on Friday, they appeared to have decided the time for waiting was over.

“It is a concentrated effort,” said Transitional National Council spokesman Jalal el-Gallal. “The intensity will only increase.”

In Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte, a key prize in the Libyan conflict, Gallal said revolutionary forces now control the airfield and residential areas on the outskirts.

Fierce battles raged along one of the main boulevards leading into Sirte as black clouds of smoke rose from the city. The sound of explosions and gunfire mixed with the roar of NATO warplanes overhead, a Reuters correspondent on the front line reported.

Pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns roared past checkpoints on their way to the city, where the green flags of Gaddafi’s government still flew from mosques and other buildings.

Gaddafi’s spokesman Moussa Ibrahim called a Syria-based television station to claim his side had inflicted casualties on their attackers.

“The battle is far from over,” he told al-Rai television. “We have prepared ourselves for a long war. We have the equipment and the weapons.”

Anti-Gaddafi fighters also initially appeared to make progress in their advance on Bani Walid, about 100 miles southeast of Tripoli, occupying a military headquarters on the northern outskirts and aiming mortar shells toward the central square.

But the optimistic talk soon gave way to shouting, anger and disappointment as fighters withdrew frantically.

“We have received orders to retreat,” Assadi al-Hamuri told Reuters. “We have been hit by many rockets. We will come back later.”

Inside the town, a loyalist radio station kept up a steady stream of invective against the revolutionaries and called on residents to join the fight.

“Run from Bani Walid and you run straight to your graves,” shouted one announcer. Another claimed that the revolutionaries were trampling Muslim values.

“These revolutionaries are fighting to drink and do drugs all the time and be like the West, dance all night,” he said. “We are a traditional tribal society that refuses such things and must fight it.”

Revolutionary forces have also advanced steadily through the desert this week toward Sabha, a Gaddafi stronghold about 480 miles south of Tripoli, and are now in control of the Wadi al-Shati valley and the town of Birak, 50 miles north of Sabha, witnesses said.

In Tripoli, Erdogan urged the people of Sirte to join the movement for democracy in Libya, and he stepped up his rhetoric against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

His comments echoed those of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron in Libya on Thursday, saying Libya’s example gave hope to those fighting oppression in Syria.

“You are the ones who showed the whole world that no administration can stand in the way of the might and will of the people,” Erdogan told a cheering crowd in Tripoli. “Do not forget this: Those in Syria who inflict repression on the people will not be able to stand on their feet.”

Staff writer Colum Lynch in New York also contributed to this story.