Libya rebels call on Sirte residents to liberate their city

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 31, 2011 

SADADA, Libya — The revolutionary fighters who deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi last week have set up a base in the town of Sadada in preparation for a possible offensive on Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, one of the fugitive former dictator's last bastions of support in the country.

But they hope that a final battle won't be necessary, and some openly are calling for the people of Sirte to liberate their own city.

"The revolution in Sirte should come from the people in Sirte," said one young man from Misrata. "If there is a battle, there will be much blood."

Fighting, however, is likely. Gadhafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, on Wednesday rejected an ultimatum from the National Transitional Council, the rebels' governing body, that Sirte surrender by Saturday.

Two of Gadhafi's sons also took to the airwaves Wednesday in an indication that they weren't yet willing to give up.

Saif al Islam Gadhafi, who was the heir apparent, said in a broadcast carried by the al Rai television station his father was safe and still in Libya.

Saadi Gadhafi told the al Arabiya satellite station that he was willing to serve as a mediator in the formation of a transitional government in an effort to head off further bloodshed.

Rebels think that Gadhafi might be in Sirte or perhaps Bani Walid, another city in central Libya with strong ties to the Gadhafi regime. Saif Gadhafi said Wednesday that loyalist leaders had gathered in Bani Walid to affirm their willingness to die in their country.

Other members of Gadhafi's family crossed into Algeria on Monday, hundreds of miles to the west of Sirte.

NATO has been stepping up its attacks on Sirte, flying 38 bombing missions over the city Tuesday, three more than the organization had launched Monday. Last Saturday, NATO flew only one mission over the city.

Fighters were waiting near Sadada for the order to move. From beneath a highway overpass, they scanned the horizon with binoculars. They acknowledged that they were under orders not to advance on Sirte until after the end of Eid al Fitr, the three-day holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

They were uncertain what awaited them. Officials in the rebel capital, Benghazi, fear that there may be as many as 10,000 loyalist troops dug in around the city of 100,000.

"Perhaps there will be a battle," said Ramadan Bishara, the commander of one of the revolutionary units at Sadada. "The (revolutionaries) want to fight."

Rebel patrols traded fire Tuesday with Gadhafi loyalists near Rouseeka, about 30 miles from Sadada and 100 miles from Sirte, which is along the Libyan coast midway between Tripoli, on the west, and Benghazi, on the east.

Rebel fighters also were approaching Sirte from the east and were reportedly about 30 miles away. On Wednesday, news agencies reported that thousands of people were fleeing the city.

Most of the fighters at Sadada hailed from Misrata, 50 miles to the west. They were some of the same fighters who wrested control of Misrata from Gadhafi's forces in May, after bloody battles that left hundreds dead and caused heavy damage to the city.

Fighters from Misrata also participated in the liberation last week of the capital, Tripoli, and, with the capital secure, many were looking forward to returning home. But they'd driven directly to Sadada, expecting to participate in an offensive against Sirte.

Any assault on Sirte will be a test of the rebels' ability to coordinate their actions. The attack on Tripoli, while it included an amphibious assault and other coordinated actions, was often an unplanned affair, with rebels from Misrata moving into the city to assist in the takeover without any direct orders.

Some Misrata rebels expressed irritation with the National Transitional Council in Benghazi, saying it has too many links to Gadhafi's government. Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the head of the council, is a former Gadhafi justice minister.

Bishara said his fighters would heed the orders of the transitional council's military panel, but expressed disdain for Abdel-Jalil.

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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