Forces loyal to former Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi, are battling a relentless NATO-backed air and ground offensive in the strategic city of Sirte, whose fall is expected to set in motion preparations

for elections and post-war reconstruction in the oil-rich North African State.

Using tanks, vehicle mounted rockets and mortars, anti-Qadhafi forces of the Transitional National Council (TNC) are blasting the Ouagadougou conference center, the epicenter of the resistance in Sirte. While the noose seems to be tightening around Qadhafi loyalists, who have been attacked by TNC forces from three different directions, close combat in the city is still rare. NATO bombardment and artillery fire is taking apart the conference center, apparently in preparation for its storming by TNC fighters later.

Some of the new regime’s members have been quoted as saying that Mr. Qadhafi’s son, Mutassim, is holed up in Sirte. It is also widely believed that Mr. Qadhafi’s other son, Saif al Islam, known for his extravagant ways, has been entrapped in Bani Walid, another city, which also continues to offer resistance to the anti-Qadhafi camp.

However, TNC leaders say that they would not wait for the fall of Bani Walid, known for its tough, difficult-to- capture terrain, to declare their campaign victorious.

Victory would be declared as soon as Sirte falls, as this would enable the TNC to control all major Libyan ports and cities, as well as the oil fields, whose revenues would fuel the country’s post-war reconstruction. A city 400 kilometers east of Tripoli, Sirte is a valuable strategic asset as it provides easy physical connectivity to the country’s oil rich east and the west.

TNC officials maintain that Sirte’s takeover will enable them to set timelines for elections and smoothen their country’s transition to democracy.

Analysts say wrapping up the Bani Walid campaign, once Sirte is under control, may become less difficult as NATO on Friday pledged indefinite support to the TNC. Speaking in Tripoli, British Foreign Secretary Liam Fox said: “Even if they could now fend for themselves, as the reminiscences of the system represent a risk to the Libyan people, NATO will continue its mission in the frame of the UN resolution to protect the civilian population from the forces loyal to the deposed president.”

Reports from the frontline continue to remain sketchy, but Associated Press is reporting that loyalists of the new regime have taken over parts of the Ouagadougou center. Resistance is now mainly flowing from

a set of villas behind the conference building. Musbah Alhadar, a brigade commander said that his forces were “camping around the (convention) center because the center itself has been destroyed by the NATO airstrikes and our artillery.” The fighters are also now controlling the four-lane avenue that connects the city center with the sprawling Ouagadougou conference complex. The offensive against Sirte had intensified on Saturday after around a 100 vehicles mounted with guns and rockets surged into the city for a decisive assault.

In other gains, loyalists of the new regime have taken over Sirte University, one of Mr. Qadhafi’s main bastions of support. But control remains elusive over Ibn Sin hospital, which has many civilians and pro-Qadhafi fighters trapped inside.

Troops loyal to the TNC have “caught many African mercenaries, mostly from Mauritania, while our men were combing the buildings for snipers,” field commander Zubair Al Kadi was quoted as saying.

According to another TNC field commander, 32 people have been killed and hundreds have been wounded since the final assault on Sirte began.

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