The Battle for Sirt: The Bloody Push for Gaddafi's Hometown

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Manu Brabo / AP

Libyan revolutionary fighters attack pro-Gaddafi forces in Sirt, Libya, on Friday, Oct. 7, 2011.

The Mediterranean Sea — perfectly clear, turquoise and ever tranquil in its late-morning glimmer — almost belies the scenes of horror that are being unloaded from the ambulances just a few hundred feet from the shoreline. On Friday morning, Oct. 7, nearly 40 wounded people have arrived at a field hospital about 30 miles (50 km) outside of Sirt in the space of just 2½ hours.

As the day progresses, the movement inside the large white tents and the main building becomes only more chaotic. Every minute, an ambulance pulls up to deliver another bloodied fighter. Medevac helicopters come and go overhead, whipping up dust into the volunteers' eyes, as the aircraft carry the most urgent cases to the central hospital in Misratah, about 125 miles (200 km) away. And behind a screen in the main building, doctors are performing emergency surgery on a man whose situation is too desperate for him to be evacuated, the red and pink of his intestines glistening beneath the doctors' fast-working hands.

This is nothing compared with the scene down the road. As they had promised, the anti-Gaddafi fighters, most of them from Misratah, pushed into the center of Muammar Gaddafi's hometown for the "final hour" on Friday morning, after weeks of heavy bombardment and territorial stalemate. Quickly, and with the use of heavy artillery, they made advances through a barren agricultural landscape into neighborhoods bordering the city center. Even more quickly, they suffered the defensive lashes of snipers, mortars and rocket-propelled grenade fire.

A smaller field hospital with fewer tools and supplies, just a few kilometers away from the city, now serves as the first stop for the wounded who escape the Sirt front line. It's the third site the hospital has occupied — the first one was shelled; the second was inadequate. Inside, swarms of doctors, medics and anxious fighters clog the building's three small rooms as the wounded are rushed in amid cries of Allahu akbar ("God is great"). The floor is splattered with blood, discarded hospital gloves and bits of gauze. A young man with a bullet lodged in his gut screams in pain on a stretcher. There are already eight dead, and it isn't even noon.

Some of the young fighters are angry, and they order journalists out of the rooms. A few collapse in grief against the outer wall of the room the medics have converted into a makeshift morgue. No one thought the push into Gaddafi's fiercely resistant hometown would be easy — particularly after earlier attempts yielded dozens of casualties. But the body count has thrown a shocking dose of reality onto anyone who had been optimistic. "I am tired. I hope that we'll control the city today," says Jalal Jweid, a young medic, mopping his brow over the flood of patients. "Today has more cases than any other day."

More ambulance sirens come wailing into the compound as the medics prepare for more arrivals. Already an ambulance driver and a medic have been wounded by gunfire. Two more ambulances are hit later in the day.

A sudden storm of shouting precedes the arrival of an ambulance bearing an older fighter with a long, gray beard, his side soaked in blood. It's Ali al-Sayeh, one of Misratah's prominent military commanders, and he has been shot in the chest. Bits of flesh stick to his army green T-shirt as the doctors cut it off him. He's breathing raggedly; his blood drips into a pool on the floor. His aides gather around him, breathless.

"Clear the route!" a man shouts through a bullhorn outside, urging the distressed and bewildered fighters to move their gun trucks out of the path of more incoming ambulances.

By late afternoon, the fighters are shelling the buildings around Gaddafi's Ouagadougou Hall, a large convention center, from multiple fronts inside the city. Loyalist snipers are firing back. A thick cloud of black smoke rises above the city, and the sounds of gunfire, mortars and rocket blasts are everywhere. In the middle-class neighborhood known as the Seven Hundred, Misratah fighters searching abandoned homes in a shell-scarred block found six local families holed up in a single house, terrified. "They had no fuel to leave," explains one of the fighters who packed the 25 men, women and children into trucks to take them to a safer area on Sirt's south side. "They were still in that house, and I don't know how," he added, seeming shell-shocked. In other houses, they find green flags, overturned furniture and sticky, congealed pools of blood.

At least 13 fighters are dead by the day's end. More than 200 are wounded. But despite the bloodshed, the fighters of the National Transitional Council have started to feel a boost of morale. The day's losses are behind them, they say, and they feel like they are finally winning the fight for Gaddafi's hometown. "Hopefully we'll take it tomorrow," says Hamada al-Hami, a fighter who is positioned with a group that is shelling sniper positions from a few kilometers to the west of Ouagadougou Hall. His friend Ashraf Ramani jumps in with a wide smile: "In 24 hours it will be done, because we are close."