As Libyan interim government forces prepared for what could be a final assault on Muammar al-Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, fighters decreased shelling on Tuesday to allow residents to leave, The Associated Press reports.
According to the AP:
The battle for Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, has become the focal point of the campaign by Libya's new rulers to break the last remnants of Gadhafi's rule. More than six weeks after the then-rebels swept into Tripoli and ousted the longtime leader, Gadhafi remains on the run, his whereabouts unknown, and his supporters remain in control not only of Sirte but also the city of Bani Walid and parts of the desert south.
Heavily armed Gaddafi loyalists are operating out of Sirte’s Ouagadougou Conference Center and the city hospital, revolutionary commanders told the AP. Reuters reports that some of the city’s 10,000 residents have joined the resistance against the Libyan forces, denying their entry into Sirte for three weeks.
On Tuesday, hundreds of cars lined up at checkpoints at Sirte's eastern exit, the AP reports.
“It is unimaginable back there," Masoud Awidat, on fleeing resident in a car with a bullet-riddled windscreen and door, told Reuters. "It gets worse every day. There's no food. There are fires, apartments are destroyed."
According to Reuters:
Sirte presents a conundrum for the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) and for NATO, whose mandate in Libya is to protect of civilians.
The NTC must strike a balance between a prolonged fight that would delay their efforts to govern and a quicker but bloody victory that would worsen regional divisions and embarrass the fledgling government and its foreign backers.
On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed that NATO would support the fighters until the bitter end, the AP reports. "As long as there is fighting that continues in Libya, I suspect that the NATO mission will continue," Panetta said.