Powerful explosions and machinegun fire shook the besieged Libyan desert town of Bani Walid on Sunday as Muammar Gaddafi loyalists shelled lines held by interim government attackers.
Ill-organised forces of the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) have met strong resistance from the defenders of Gaddafi's last bastions in Bani Walid, the coastal city of Sirte and the town of Sabha, deep in the Libyan desert.
"We fought all night. We have surrounded the city from all sides with a range of 40 km (25 miles)," anti-Gaddafi commander Absalim Gnuna told Reuters at the northern gate of Bani Walid, as his fighters took cover behind walls and vehicles.
Some fired back at the town using anti-aircraft guns, while Koranic verses blared from a vehicle to boost morale.
"We need to organise ourselves better because now we are not organised," said 50-year-old NTC fighter Jamal al-Gharyani, who served for years in Gaddafi's army before switching sides.
"To liberate Bani Walid, heavy artillery has to go in first followed by infantry -- like everywhere else. Right now it is not exactly chaos, but many of our fighters have no experience so it's not so easy," he sighed.
Shells whistled above anti-Gaddafi positions and exploded across the desert valley as invisible snipers sprayed bullets from Bani Walid's rooftops and smoke rose above the town.
NTC fighters captured a man hailing from neighbouring Chad in the open desert, accusing him of being a Gaddafi gunman.
Shaking with fear, the man, who gave his name as Mohamed Ezzein, whispered that he had nothing to do with the war.
"I'm just a shepherd. What fighting? What fighting?" he repeated from the back of a pickup truck as anti-Gaddafi fighters pushed him around saying: "Don't lie, don't lie".
Battle for Sirte
NTC forces renewed their push towards Sirte, Gaddafi's home town, after making little headway on Saturday, although they did seize the town of Herawa, 60 km (40 miles) to the east.
A doctor at a field hospital set up in a gas station on the western outskirts of Sirte said 16 anti-Gaddafi fighters and one ambulance driver had died in Saturday's fighting. He had also received 62 wounded, but no casualties so far on Sunday.
"We are heading towards Sirte to reinforce our forces there and protect Sirte," said Nuri al-Qantari, a commander of the Martyrs of Zawiyah brigade, as a convoy of about 40 NTC battlewagons sped towards the city.
He told Reuters the convoy of trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers was part of a 400-vehicle contingent advancing on Sirte, which controls the coastal highway between Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi.
Fighters in camouflage uniforms fired in the air in a show of bravado. Some shouted "Gaddafi, we will kill you", while others chanted "Allahu Akbar (God is greatest)".
A Reuters reporter on the western approaches to Sirte said hundreds of anti-Gaddafi fighters chanting and flashing victory signs raced toward the city on a dusty highway.
There were few signs of fighting early on Sunday, but NTC forces said they were preparing to resume battle after three days of intense clashes in and around the coastal city.
Scores of civilian cars and pickup trucks poured out of the city, with residents describing water and electricity shortages amid street fighting. Gaddafi forces were patrolling the streets in the centre, they said, making their lives a misery.
"The situation is very bad. People are living in terror," resident Taher al-Menseli, 33, said as NTC fighters searched his car at a checkpoint.
"Gaddafi supporters are trying to convince people the revolutionaries are criminals and that you have to kill them. Even if you don't believe this, you have to appear convinced."
Nearby, three young men knelt in the sand beside the road, their hands tied behind their backs. NTC fighters said they had found two assault rifles and ammunition in their car.
An NTC spokesman said anti-Gaddafi forces captured the small town of Birak on Saturday as they advanced towards the southern Gaddafi outpost of Sabha, 700 km south of Tripoli.
Since the Libyan capital fell to rebels on Aug. 23, rumours have swirled about whether Gaddafi is in any of his three main strongholds. His spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said on Saturday the ousted leader was still in Libya and leading resistance.
Ibrahim also accused NATO of killing 354 people in air raids on Sirte on Friday night, an accusation Reuters could not independently verify. A NATO spokesman in Naples said such reports in the past had been "false".
"We will be able to continue this fight and we have enough arms for months and months to come," Ibrahim said in a call to Reuters via satellite telephone.
With fighting still raging in the seven-month war, Libya's interim council is unable to declare all of the oil-producing North African nation "liberated" and begin a timetable for drawing up a democratic constitution and holding elections.
ReutersLast Mod: 18 Eylül 2011, 13:18