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Gadhafi loyalists protect Sirte

Gadhafi loyalists protect Sirte

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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'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.

The other stronghold of Bani Walid, 150 miles 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.

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