But counterattacks later in the day pushed some of the forces back and fighting continued, according to media reports.
Sirte, 278 miles east of Tripoli, carries strategic and symbolic importance in the battle for Libya. It is ousted leader Moammar Gaddafi’s home town, a place where he spent lavishly to build glitzy hotels and villas and to buy loyalty. And it lies at a central point on the main coastal road that connects Libya’s east and west.
The prolonged fighting there has stymied the formation of a permanent government. Libya’s temporary leaders have said they will consider the country liberated only when Sirte is under their control. At that point, they say, they will declare an interim government that can start moving the country toward a new constitution and elections.
But Sirte, a city of about 100,000 people, one-fifth of whom are from Gaddafi’s tribe, has been harder to subdue than many had hoped.
“We thought that we wouldn’t need any fight in the city after the fall of Tripoli,” said Hassan al-Droe, the Transitional National Council’s Sirte representative, who is working from Benghazi, a city in the east. “I thought that Gaddafi and his family would leave the whole country after the fall of Bab al-Aziziya,” the former leader’s Tripoli compound.
Instead, when Tripoli fell, many of Gaddafi’s forces fled and regrouped in Sirte and Bani Walid. TNC officials said they did not know how many loyalists were holding out or the amount of arms and ammunition they possess.
“They are military soldiers, very well trained, very well armed,” said Atia Mansouri, a former Libyan air force officer who is a military consultant helping coordinate NATO forces and TNC fighters. By contrast, the revolutionary forces have suffered from a lack of organization and training, which has delayed their advance and cost lives, he said.
Three groups have been pushing into Sirte, with some under traditional-style military command and some acting as “a guerilla operation,” Mansouri said, adding that the groups have had trouble communicating with one another.
TNC officials say they have advanced slowly into Sirte to avoid the kinds of heavy civilian casualties Gaddafi forces inflicted on the city of Misurata by shelling indiscriminately. Residents fleeing Sirte have described abysmal conditions, with heavy destruction and a lack of food and fuel.
The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that about 20,000 people have been displaced on the eastern and western sides of the city. It says it does not know how many civilians remain inside.