SIRTE, Libya — Revolutionary fighters struggled to make gains in an assault into Gadhafi’s hometown Saturday with bloody street-by-street battles against loyalist forces fiercely defending the most symbolic of the shattered regime’s remaining strongholds.
The fresh attack into the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte contrasted with a stalemate in the mountain enclave of Bani Walid where demoralized anti-Gadhafi forces tried to regroup after being beaten back by loyalist snipers and gunners holding strategic high ground.
Intense resistance has stalled forces of Libya’s new leadership trying to crush the dug-in fighters loyal to Gadhafi, weeks after the former rebels swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21 and pushed the country’s leader out of power and into hiding. Sirte and Bani Walid are the main bastions of backers of the old regime in Libya’s coastal plain, but smaller holdouts remain in the deserts of the center of the country — and another major stronghold, Sabha, lies in the deep south.
The resistance has raised fears of a protracted insurgency of the sort that has played out in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as the transitional government tries to establish its authority and move toward eventual elections.
A military spokesman for the transitional government said revolutionaries do not know Gadhafi’s location.
Col. Ahmed Omar Bani pointed to the still uncollected bounty of nearly $2 million that the new leadership has put on the fugitive leader’s head, saying, “Up to now we don’t have any certain information or intelligence about his whereabouts.”
Columns of black smoke rose over Sirte, as revolutionary fighters backed by heavy machine guns and rockets tried to push through crowded residential areas in the city. They claimed to have gained less than a mile into the city, along the main coastal highway leading in from the west.
The forces were met by a rain of gunfire , rockets and mortars. A field hospital set up outside Sirte at a gas station filled with wounded fighters, including some from a convoy hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Twenty-four anti-Gadhafi fighters were killed and 54 wouneed in the day’s battles, the military council from the nearby city of Misrata reported.
The pro-regime radio station in Sirte repeatedly aired a recorded message it said was from Gadhafi, urging the city of XXXX’s defenders to fight on. “You must resist fiercely. You must kick them out of Sirte,” the voice said. “If they get inside Sirte, they are going to rape the women.” The voice resembled Gadhafi’s but its authenticity could not be confirmed.
Gadhafi’s spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, vowed, “We have the ability to continue this resistance for months,” in a phone call Friday to Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become the mouthpiece for the former regime.
The conditions inside Sirte were reportedly growing increasingly dire for those caught in the crossfire. Nouri Abu Bakr, a 42-year-old teacher fleeing the city, said there is no electricity or medicine and food supplies are nearly exhausted.
“Gadhafi gave all the people weapons, but those fighting are the Gadhafi brigade of loyalists,” he said.
Hassan Dourai, Sirte representative in the new government’s interim government, said fighters reported seeing one of Gadhafi’s son, Muatassim, shortly before the offensives began Friday, but he has not been spotted since the battles intensified. The whereabouts of Gadhafi and several of his sons remain unknown. Other family members have fled to neighboring Algeria and Niger.
Most of the hundreds of fighters assaulting Sirte are from Misrata, a city to the northwest along the coast that held out for weeks against a brutal Gadhafi siege during the civil war. Revolutionary commanders were trying to open a second front into Sirte, from the east. They said they were trying to reach a surrender deal with elders in most of the Harawa region, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Sirte, to open a possible new pathway — but fighting was reported in the area Saturday, suggesting efforts were stalled.
The other stronghold of Bani Walid, 150 miles (250 kilometers) east of Sirte, has proven even more difficult for the forces of the new regime. The fighters withdrew Friday after facing withering sniper fire and shelling from loyalist units.
The loyalists hold the strategic high ground along the ridges overlooking a desert valley called Wadi Zeitoun that divides the city between northern and southern sections. From there, they could bloody the fighters trying to move down through the northern half of the city and into the valley, which is irrigated with olive groves. The terrain has made the city a historical hold-out: In the early 20th century, Italian forces occupying Libya struggled to take Bani Walid.
“This may be the worst front Libya will see,” said fighter Osama Al-Fassi, who joined other former rebels gathered at a feed factory outside the city’s northern edge, where they drank coffee and took target practice at plastic bottles.
On Saturday evening, Gadhafi forces blasted fighters at the northern entrance with snipers and mortar fire, prompting the revolutionary forces to battle their way in once again in an unplanned advance, said Bilqassim el-Imami, one of the fighters. They made their way back to the edge of Wadi Zeitoun amid heavy fire with anti-aircraft machine guns.
A 50-year-old civil servant fleeing Bani Walild with his family, Ismail Mohammed, described the pro-Gadhafi forces as “too strong” inside Bani Walid and suggested a generational divide between young people strongly behind the uprising and older Libyans often more cautious about whether the revolutionary forces can bring stability.
“The youth wanted this revolution and sometimes you can’t control your own son,” he said.
In Libya’s southern desert, hundreds of revolutionary fighters were negotiating with villagers in the still pro-Gadhafi region to surrender peacefully. The fighters left the captured Bani Jalloud air base and rolled through villages where they reached truces. Along the route, crowds cheered their arrival and flashed V-for-victory signs. But in one village, Ayoun, they came under fire, prompting a heavy gunbattle in which one fighter was killed.
Col. Bashir Awidat said they seek to secure the surrounding hinterlands before moving against Sabha, the main southern urban center about 400 miles (650 kilometers) south of Tripoli. He said the villagers had been isolated and believed Gadhafi’s propaganda.
“They think that we’ll raid their houses and rob them. The media coverage here has been bad for 42 years and it has trained people to think a certain way, and that will take time to change,” he told The Associated Press at the captured air base.