The Battle for Sirt: On Scene at the Libyan Rebels' Toughest Fight Yet

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Guillem Valle / EPA

Libyan rebels take up positions near Abu Adi, as they advance towards the village where Muammar Gaddafi was born, a few KM from Surt, Libya, September 17, 2011.

Moving up and down the highway that runs along Sirt's southern border, rebel gun trucks maneuvered amid heavy shelling and sniper fire to pound elusive but deadly targets within Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's hometown on Sunday for the fourth day running — and with little success.

Over the weekend, after the expiration of a deadline for Gaddafi loyalists to surrender, rebel fighters pushed into the city with relative ease, only to be quickly repelled by pro-Gaddafi forces, suffering heavy casualties. On Saturday, rebel gun trucks took turns driving up a coastal hill to launch a barrage of rockets and heavy artillery at vague targets within the sprawling coastal town. But despite three NATO air strikes over the weekend, those inside the city center only fought back harder, and rebels failed to penetrate their defenses. By Sunday night, with morale failing, some rebel fighters had begun to speak of pulling back even further, ostensibly to give families time to flee — even though the city's residents had been moving out in a steady stream for days.

Sirt cuts the vast territory now held by the Libyan rebels' U.N.-recognized National Transitional Council (NTC) in half. And as one of the last remaining regime strongholds, it may become one of Libya's fiercest fights yet. The NTC fighters say that a mix of mercenary fighting power and regime propaganda has kept the port city firmly out of their reach. But that town has also produced few rebels; the forces attacking the city are hobbled by a lack of familiarity with the streets within, and some said they were frustrated by what they claimed was an attempt by loyalist forces to use civilians as human shields. "They put families in front of them. And we cannot kill the children or the women because we are not killers," said Khaled al-Ogaab, a fighter from Misratah.

Most of the forces closing in on the city center have poured in from Misratah, one of Libya's hardest-hit cities during Gaddafi's six-month campaign to crush the uprising and now the source of some of its fiercest fighters. But as loyalist forces bombarded rebel positions on the city outskirts and rebels fired back on Sunday, both sides appeared to be using indiscriminate shelling in a desperate attempt to subdue the other. "That is Gaddafi's farm. We were right there," said Sanad al-Sayd breathlessly, with his back against a gun truck on one of the city's southern front lines, pointing to the streets that he and his friends had just retreated from. "There is the airport, with Saadi's brigade," he added, gesturing farther south. "And there is Sirt University," he pointed back into the city. We're striking from three sides today. Right here, right there and right there," he said, pointing his finger in vague directions.

Ali Faraj, a medical statistician who now drives a Katyusha rocket truck, estimated the fight could take days. "Sirt is a big city and everyone likes Gaddafi there," he said. "There are no revolutionaries inside." Indeed, where civilian loyalties lie and how deep they run could prove critical in determining the timetable for the NTC's consolidation of the country. Rebel forces also retreated chaotically from the pro-Gaddafi city of Bani Walid on Sunday, according to Reuters. And the NTC has so far been unable to penetrate Sabha, a third Gaddafi stronghold in Libya's desert south.

Civilians have fled increasingly from Sirt and Bani Walid in recent days, citing food and fuel shortages and heavy fighting. At a checkpoint on Misratah's eastern outskirts on Sunday, a dozen families from Sirt waited as NTC fighters vetted and searched them. Some families waited long enough to set up makeshift camps with sheets and blankets strung between the cars to shield them against the fierce desert sun.

Meanwhile, fighters who had ventured into the city's streets reported that some of Gaddafi's henchmen had tried to flee dressed as civilians. Others said they had encountered female snipers — incidents they cited as evidence of the success of the regime's propaganda. "[The regime] told them that we are other nationalities, and we are going to rape them and steal from them — that's why they're scared of us," said Abdel Salaam Abu Shadia, a Misratah fighter. "We found a family [on Friday] and they thought we were from Qatar."

Throughout the weekend, the fighters occasionally carted away prisoners. At a gas station turned checkpoint on Sirt's western outskirts on Saturday, several dozen NTC fighters surrounded a cage that they had filled with a small group of dark-skinned men in army fatigues. The fighters taunted and shouted at their captives; Gaddafi forces, they said. But they wouldn't allow journalists to get close. "They are mercenaries. They raped women," one fighter said angrily, trying to keep TIME's reporter at a distance. "You can't see them now. There is a problem." He wouldn't say what the problem was, but another fighter offered in broken English: "Maybe we do something with them first." Later they were gone.

Sandwiched between hostile neighborhoods and a turquoise sea, fighters along Sirt's coastal road on Saturday said they had encountered trickery and relentless sniper fire. At one point they ignored the incoming fire of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), exploding in midair, thunderclaps of black smoke, for nearly an hour. Some said the overhead explosions were evidence that they were well out of range of Gaddafi's forces. But RPGs explode in midair after traveling for a certain distance without hitting a target. And by the time it had become clear that the rebel positions were being marked, rather than missed, artillery shells and high-caliber machine-gun fire had begun raining in, sending the trucks fleeing west and then south to escape the danger zone.

The nearest hospital is back in Misratah, some 150 miles (240 km) away, down a barren desert highway with little in between. And to cope with the flood of wounded out of Sirt's front lines, the NTC fighters have converted the City Gate Rest Stop and its accompanying gas station on the western outskirts into a field hospital; tying IV drips to ceiling light fixtures, and at times, performing triage on thin mattresses spread across the floor.

Late on Sunday afternoon, a rotation of determined doctors and paramedics performed CPR on 21-year-old Abdel Aziz al-Bawel. "Gunshot wound to the left side," said one of the paramedics who rescued him from the front line. Outside, al-Bawel's friends watched tearfully from an open window. But after half an hour, a doctor ordered the medics to stop. With no defibrillator, no blood bank and no running water, the wounded die easily there. And quickly and silently, two medics sewed up al-Bawel's wounds and wheeled his body into another room, preparing the field hospital for the next round of casualties.

Within an hour, a chorus of wailing sirens announced the arrival of nine more — all shot by snipers. This time the doctors performed CPR on Bashir Mohamed, a 42-year-old father of seven, for nearly half an hour. He died too. The rest were stabilized long enough to pack into ambulances for the long ride back to Misratah.