Gaddafi loyalists hit back in Sirte

Gaddafi’s forcesLibya: Libya’s new regime fighters retreated Thursday under heavy fire from Muammar Gaddafi diehards in his hometown Sirte as their leaders backtracked on an announcement they had captured one of his sons.

The fighters, who had been hoping to mop up the last pockets of resistance in two northwestern residential districts, withdrew at least two kilometres (more than a mile) to the police headquarters they had captured on Tuesday, said an AFP reporter.“We have been told to retreat to the police HQ and will be using artillery cannon to hit Gaddafi’s forces,” fighter Hamid Neji of the Martyrs of Free Libya Brigade told AFP on the new front line.

As heavy artillery fire was heard in the city’s west and thick black smoke rose over the waterfront to the north, ambulances with sirens ablaze ferried the many wounded out for treatment.The intensity of fighting eased later to machinegun and occasional rocket fire, mainly from the forces of the new regime, as they waited for further orders expected in the evening or on Friday.Before the reverse, a field commander of the brigade had told AFP its fighters were trying to avoid using heavy weaponry against the Dollar and Number Two residential neighbourhoods to avoid civilian casualties.“We are not going very aggressively into these neighbourhoods because there are still families inside them,” commander Yahya al-Moghasabi said.

Sirte is a key goal for Libya’s new leaders who have said they will not proclaim the country’s liberation and begin preparing for the transition to an elected government until the city has fallen.The new regime began its siege of Sirte on September 15 before launching what it termed a “final assault” last Friday that has seen at least 91 of its troops killed and hundreds wounded, according to medics.Its forces have encircled Gaddafi loyalists after taking control of Sirte’s waterfront, its showpiece conference centre, university, hospital and main square.

A top adviser of National Transitional Council (NTC) chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil meanwhile backtracked on his announcement that they had captured Gaddafi’s feared son and national security chief Mutassim in Sirte, after it was denied by military commanders in the city.“There was some confusion about the reports of Mutassim’s capture,” Abdelkarim Bizama said. “As soon as we have confirmation, there will be an official announcement of his arrest.”Late on Thursday, Bizama had announced: “Mutassim Gaddafi was captured at Sirte and was transferred to Benghazi,” Libya’s second-largest city where significant parts of the new leadership remain based.

The announcement sparked celebratory gunfire in both Tripoli and the anti-Gaddafi stronghold of Misrata, Libya’s third city, which withstood a devastating siege by his forces.New regime fighters said they did capture the Gaddafi regime’s top cleric as he attempted to flee Sirte on Wednesday with his beard shaved off to disguise his appearance.Khaled Tantoosh, who served as Libya’s mufti under Gaddafi, made broadcasts in support of the fugitive ex-strongman through the long uprising that ended his 42-year rule.“We captured him yesterday morning,” said fighter Abdu Salam, who said he stopped the cleric’s vehicle with four comrades on the coast road west out of Sirte.

“He had completely changed his appearance. He was clean-shaven and was driving out and trying to escape to Tripoli,” he said.NATO said its aircraft hit two military vehicles in Sirte on Wednesday and one more in the other remaining bastion of Gaddafi forces — the desert oasis of Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli.NTC oil and finance minister Ali Tarhuni said Libya would not award any further oil contracts until an elected government has been formed.“The only government that can give new concessions in oil is an elected government, and that would be after we have a constitution,” he said.

Libya’s oil production, which collapsed after the uprising in February, is expected to rise from current levels of about 400,000 barrels per day to nearly one million by April, said Nuri Berruien, president of the state-run National Oil Company (NOC).“We are shooting to go back to previous levels of 1.6-1.7 million, hopefully before the end of 2012,” he said.

Italian energy company ENI said meanwhile it has resumed supplies of natural gas through the Greenstream pipeline linking Libya and Italy, following an eight-month suspension due to the conflict.“NOC and ENI… today began injecting natural gas through the Greenstream gas pipeline,” said ENI, the biggest foreign energy producer in Libya, a former Italian colony.Berruien, confirmed the supply of “limited quantities” to Italy but said “official” exports would not resume until the end November or early December after levels are agreed. – Khaleejnews