Libyans push into Qadhafi’s hometown from east

SIRTE, Libya – About 1000 Libyan revolutionary troops have launched a major assault on Muammar Qadhafi's hometown, surging from the east to try to capture the last area under loyalist control.

Tuesday's push to rout the remaining resistance from Sirte came a day after commanders announced they had captured most of a second stronghold, Bani Walid.

Libyan fighters have squeezed the die-hard Qadhafi supporters into an area comprising just a few blocks in Sirte but have been unable to gain full control of the city.

It has been more than two months since the former rebels gained control of the capital and much of the rest of the oil-rich North African nation. Persistent fighting has prevented Libya's new leaders from declaring final victory and setting a timeline for elections.

Fierce resistance in Bani Walid and Qadhafi's hometown of Sirte has prevented Libya's new leaders from declaring full victory and setting a timeline for elections. It has been more than two months since the former rebels gained control of the rest of the oil-rich North African nation.

In a step toward normalcy, the transitional leadership council confirmed it has signed an agreement with NATO that partially lifts the no-fly zone imposed in March over the country, allowing resumption of some flights without seeking NATO approval. The embargo was imposed as part of the UN Security Council resolution that authorized airstrikes to protect civilians from Qadhafi's regime.

Anwar Elfeitori, the minister of transportation and communications, said the agreement signed Thursday in Malta will make it easier to transport wounded fighters from the front lines for treatment.

"The partial lifting of the air embargo will help with the transportation of the casualties, which is the No. 1 priority at this time, as well as facilitate the movement of people between Libya and the rest of the world," Elfeitori told The Associated Press in an interview.

He said the agreement only applies to specific routes and altitudes for humanitarian flights but is designed so it can be amended to include other areas as security conditions allow.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the revolutionary council fighters are making progress. He called on pro-Qadhafi forces "to lay down their weapons and join the new Libya."

NATO officials have expressed surprise at the persistence of Qadhafi's supporters. Libyans believe the heavy resistance signals some of Qadhafi's sons and other high-level regime figures are hiding in the areas.

Fighters in Bani Walid, which has proven particularly hard to capture because of its difficult terrain, said they have entered the city center for the first time but still were fighting Qadhafi supporters in surrounding villages.

"We liberated the city around sunset on Sunday and raised the revolutionary flags all over the city," field commander Abdel-Salam Genouna told The Associated Press. He said fighters had occupied the central marketplace, the hospital, the hotel and an old fort that had all been used as bases for Qadhafi loyalists.

"We are patrolling the neighborhoods because there are still some scuffles, but otherwise it is completely under our control," he said, adding revolutionaries also had control of a steep valley called Wadi Zeitoun that had been a sniper base for Qadhafi's forces.

"Our forces are everywhere inside the city, and we are protecting the few families we found inside," he said.

He said fighters from Sabratha, Tripoli and Bani Walid were involved in the operation.

Colonel Ahmed Bani, a military spokesman in Tripoli, said revolutionary forces had control over more than 90 percent of the city. He said revolutionary forces had suffered heavy casualties but declined to give a number.

Residents and fighters said that Qadhafi forces retreated in the face of the advance over the past two days.

Muammar al-Warfali, a doctor in Bani Walid, said fighters loyal to the new transitional government seized the center, a key hospital and several other high buildings used by Qadhafi's snipers to prevent any advance by the revolutionary fighters.

He also said Qadhafi's son Seif al-Islam had been seen in the city as recently as last week.

NATO has pledged to continue airstrikes for as long as necessary, saying pro-Qadhafi forces continue to pose a threat to civilians in Libya.

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague also pledged more humanitarian and financial support Monday during a visit to Tripoli.

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