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World & Nation

Libya revolutionaries have Surt in stranglehold

Fighters loyal to Moammar Kadafi engaged in a last-ditch battle Thursday from a single pocket of resistance in the former Libyan leader’s besieged hometown.

Tanks manned by fighters allied with the transitional government fired relentlessly at pro-Kadafi forces pinned in a compact residential district of Surt close to the Mediterranean coast, sending dust and concrete into the air. Anti-Kadafi fighters with rifles moved into firing position, crunching over spent ammunition cartridges that littered the central garden plaza.

“This is about to be over. They have nothing left now,” said Basset Bibas, 35, an anti-Kadafi fighter.

Most reports indicated that perhaps only several hundred armed loyalists were left trying to defend the town that Kadafi had for years indulged, investing in extravagant public buildings and grand housing estates. Much of that lavish legacy lay in ruins after weeks of urban combat.

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There is as yet no estimate of how many fighters and civilians have been killed during more than three weeks of fighting, much of it involving inaccurate fire from tanks, artillery, antiaircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Late Wednesday, the revolutionaries said they had captured one of Kadafi’s sons, Muatassim, spurring a flurry of news bulletins and riotous celebrations. But later, in the capital of Tripoli, Libya’s transitional government denied that Muatassim Kadafi had been captured.

Dozens of fighters advanced on foot Thursday toward Surt’s last remnants of resistance, slogging through streets flooded with murky brown water from broken pipes. Sniper fire made splashes.

Behind the moving front line, columns of anti-Kadafi fighters conducted a “cleanup” operation, shooting down doors, smashing cupboards and upturning beds as they searched for weapons and loyalist soldiers.

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Some of the hunted, looking gaunt and tired, were pulled from hiding places in homes and other buildings. In a child’s room, abandoned military uniforms lay scattered on the floor beside a teddy bear; nearby stood a blown-out safe filled with Kalashnikov rifle rounds.

“In this house we found 15 Kalashnikovs, radio transmitters and rocket-propelled grenades,” said Lotfi el Amin, an anti-Kadafi fighter.

As the revolutionaries consolidate their gains, uninhibited plundering is sweeping the city. As they continued to search homes and businesses, some made off with items varying from Lexus cars to chickens, afterward comparing their wares.

Clefty clefty!” laughed men, using a Libyan slang term for looting.

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The forces attacking Surt come mainly from Misurata and other cities, some of which suffered comparable damage during government sieges in the waning months of Kadafi’s rule as his troops tried to quell a burgeoning protest movement.

“My brother died, my nephew died, my neighbor was killed,” said Hakim Belagri, 56, recalling victims of the bloody battle for Misurata that raged from February to May.

Today, Surt, like Misurata, is a panorama of buildings gashed by bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.

At least one fighter from Surt who joined the anti-Kadafi onslaught questioned the devastation.

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“If we don’t stop shelling and robbing like this, in three days Surt will just be flattened into the desert,” said the combatant, who declined to give his name and soon broke into tears.

“Surt has been destroyed, and so many civilians have died.… If we had known what they would do to our houses, maybe we would have stayed with Kadafi.”

Sherlock is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.


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