SIRTE, Libya — Revolutionary fighters struggled to make gains in an assault on Moammar Gaddafi’s home town Saturday, with street-by-street battles against loyalist forces defending the most symbolic of the shattered regime’s remaining strongholds.
The new attack on the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte contrasted with a stalemate in the mountain enclave of Bani Walid, where anti-Gaddafi forces tried to regroup after being beaten back by loyalist snipers and gunners holding strategic high ground.
Intense resistance has stalled forces of Libya’s new leadership trying to crush the dug-in fighters loyal to Gaddafi, weeks after the former rebels swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21 and pushed the country’s leader out of power and into hiding. Sirte and Bani Walid are the main bastions of supporters of the old regime in Libya’s coastal plain, but smaller holdouts remain in the deserts of the center of the country — and another major stronghold, Sabha, lies in the deep south.
The resistance has raised fears of a protracted insurgency of the sort that has played out in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as the transitional government tries to establish its authority and move toward eventual elections.
A military spokesman for the transitional government said revolutionaries do not know Gaddafi’s location.
Col. Ahmed Omar Bani pointed to the still uncollected bounty of nearly $2 million that the new leadership has put on the fugitive leader’s head, saying, “Up to now we don’t have any certain information or intelligence about his whereabouts.”
Columns of black smoke rose over Sirte as revolutionary fighters, backed by heavy machine guns and rockets, tried to push through crowded residential areas. They claimed to have gained less than a mile into the city, along the main coastal highway leading in from the west.
The forces were met by a rain of gunfire and mortars. A field hospital set up outside Sirte at a gas station filled with wounded fighters, including some from a convoy hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. About 10 anti-government fighters were killed and 35 wounded Saturday, medics said. The casualty count on the loyalist side was unknown.
Gaddafi’s spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, vowed, “We have the ability to continue this resistance for months,” in a phone call Friday to Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become the mouthpiece for the former government.
The conditions inside Sirte were reportedly growing increasingly dire for those caught in the crossfire. Nouri Abu Bakr, a 42-year-old teacher fleeing the city, said there is no electricity or medicine and food supplies are nearly exhausted.
The other stronghold of Bani Walid, 150 miles east of Sirte, has proven even more difficult for the forces of the new regime. The fighters withdrew Friday after facing withering sniper fire and shelling from loyalist units.