Last throes of Libya war focus on Sirte

TRIPOLI, (Reuters) – Libyan rebel forces were  converging on Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte yesterday,  hoping to deliver the coup de grace of their revolution but  uncertain if the fallen strongman was holed up there.

The fugitive Gaddafi’s exact whereabouts where still not  known and it was possible he was still in hiding in Tripoli,  five days after it fell to rebel forces and his 42-year-old  reign collapsed.

NATO war planes struck at Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast,  for a third day yesterday, a spokesman for the multi-national  alliance said in Brussels.

“We’re paying close attention to what’s happening in Sirte  because we know that there are remnants of the regime that are  there,” the spokesman said.

On the ground, rebel forces also closed in and said they  would seize Sirte by force if negotiations for its surrender  failed.

Gaddafi was born near Sirte, 450 km (300 miles) east of  Tripoli, in 1942 and after he seized power in 1969 he built it  up from a sleepy fishing village into an important city and  power center of 100,000 people.

He still retains support and sympathy there, so whether or  not he has chosen to retreat to the city to make a last stand,  its capture will still be strategically and symbolically  important to the rebels as they consolidate their victory.

One rebel commander said his forces were within 100 km (60  miles) of Sirte from the east and others were advancing from the  west.

On the coastal highway east of Tripoli, tank transporters  were carrying Soviet-designed T-55 tanks in the direction of  Sirte. Rebels said the tanks were seized from an abandoned  military base in Zlitan.

 SKIRMISHES       

Jamal Tunally, a rebel military commander in Misrata, told  Reuters: “The front line is 30 km from Sirte. We think the Sirte  situation will be resolved peacefully, God willing.”

“Now we just need to find Gaddafi. I think he is still  hiding underneath Bab al-Aziziyah like a rat,” said Tunally,  referring to Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli which rebels overran  on Tuesday.

In the east, rebel fighters pushed 7 km (4 miles) past the  village of Bin Jawad and secured the Nawfaliyah junction, a  rebel spokesman said.

“We’re going slowly,” spokesman Mohammad Zawawi told  Reuters. “We want to give more time for negotiations, to give a  chance for those people trying to persuade the people inside  Sirte to surrender and open their city.”

In Tripoli, the rebel leadership sought to establish control  after days of confusion and sporadic skirmishing with the  remnants of Gaddafi’s forces. Several explosions and  intermittent gunfire were heard overnight yesterday.

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