MISRATA, Libya — Libyan rebel forces now control about 60 percent of Sirte, one of the last strongholds of former leader Muammar Gaddafi, rebel military commanders confirmed here Thursday.
A convoy of almost 900 armed pickup trucks and tanks from Misrata advanced on Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown. Loyalists in Sirte had refused negotiations for a peaceful handover of power.
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“We advanced in two groups from the West and the South,” said Zachary Safa, a rebel commander with the southern advance on Thursday afternoon. “When we reached Sirte we entered the city as one group. Gaddafi’s army has been pushed back, but the guys are still clashing with local militia groups.”
By 10 p.m. Libyan time the rebels had control of Sirte's areas 1 and 2 which make up about 60 percent of the city, according to Mohammed Benrushali, a rebel high commander of the Sirte front. Reached by phone, Benrushali said a large number of Gaddafi’s military forces had been cornered by rebel troops in a hospital in the Sirte neighborhood of Oughadougou.
“At this time we have not decided whether to enter the building tonight or wait until morning,” Benrushali said. “There are many snipers operating throughout the area.”
The rebels expect to have full control of Sirte by Thursday, said the National Transitional Council's military spokesperson Ibrahim Betamal. The rebels said they moved the advance forward when they learned that families living in Sirte who originally came from Misrata had been targeted by Gaddafi's loyalists. At least one entire family suspected of supporting the rebels had been executed by Gaddafi's troops in recent days, said the rebels.
Rebels inside Bani Walid have begun fighting the Gaddafi loyalist, said Betamal. Hopes are high that Gaddafi will be captured once these remaining strongholds fall. Betamal said that regardless of his whereabouts, he no longer poses a threat to the Libyan people.
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“The game is already over. No one is afraid of Gaddafi anymore,” he said.
Misrata’s Central Hospital reported 10 dead and 39 injured late Thursday, but ambulances were still arriving from the Sirte front line. The hospital is now overwhelmed with family members, friends and fellow fighters. Many Gaddafi loyalists have been captured. One unit counted 20 prisoners, most boys from Mauritania.
As worried family members gathered anxiously around a list of dead and injured, a pickup truck carrying a captured mercenary fighter arrived. One armed rebel fighter stood guard over the man, who appeared to have minor injuries. An angry crowd of distraught family members gathered around him, some shouting, but the crowd held back from any violence. No one touched the captive before he was driven away in the direction of the prison hospital.
Following reports that supplies of food, water and medicine were running critically short in Sirte, supplies have been moved toward the city to deliver to the civilian population as soon as possible.
Overnight, NATO forces struck eight targets in Sirte, as part of a bombardment that has destroyed around 300 military targets in the area over the past three weeks, said NATO sources.
In total, 24 targets were hit by NATO Thursday, including several radar systems and surface-to-surface missile launchers within Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha.
News of the advance on Sirte was met with celebrations and gunfire here.
“Bye, bye Gaddafi. See you in the Hague,” chanted one group as they banged drums and celebrated in the streets of Misrata.
As the rebels extend their reach across the country, the National Transitional Council is gaining greater international recognition. The U.N. General Assembly is preparing to officially reassign the Libyan seat to the council. And on Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy, the French president, visited Tripoli to express their support for the new governing structure. The leaders promised economic assistance — and help finding the elusive Gaddafi.
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Sarkosy, alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron, spoke to cheering crowds Thursday at Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli known as Bab al-Aziza. They are the first world leaders to travel to Libya since revolutionary forces seized the capital and ousted Gaddafi.
"This was your revolution, not our revolution,” Cameron said, addressing the crowds in Tripoli as Misratan rebels fought their way into Sirte, “It was those brave people in Misrata, in Benghazi, in Brega, in Zlitan, in Tripoli, in the Nesfusa mountains who were incredibly brave in removing the dreadful dictatorship of Gadhafi and I pay tribute to those people throughout Libya today. It is your revolution. It is their bravery that has enabled this to happen."
Cameron also urged Gaddafi loyalists to “give up” and for mercenaries to “go home.”
“Those who still think Gaddafi has any part in any part of government in any part of this country should forget it,” he said.
Both France and Britain led international support for the rebellion in Libya. Sarkosy and Cameron are scheduled to visit Benghazi on Friday.