Libyan provisional government forces backed by NATO warplanes raced through the eastern outskirts of Sirte on Monday, closing in on Moammar Gaddafi loyalists holed up in one of the last bastions of the deposed leader.

Thick, black smoke billowed into the air as Transitional National Council fighters battled loyalist troops at a roundabout about one mile from the center of Gaddafi’s home town.

The thud of explosions could be heard as NATO aircraft roared overhead. Council fighters said the jets were striking loyalist positions.

In a separate development, Libya’s interim justice minister said the Lockerbie case was closed, apparently rebuffing a British request for help with information or evidence that could lead to others, even Gaddafi, being charged in the 1988 airliner bombing.

The advance in Sirte came two days after anti-Gaddafi fighters west of the city drove to within a few hundred meters of its center before pulling back Sunday to make way for NATO strikes.

On the western edges of Sirte on Monday, council fighters and Gaddafi loyalists traded heavy machine-gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades and artillery rounds.

Snipers loyal to Gaddafi could be seen on building rooftops. NATO aircraft flew overhead.

NATO would not comment on its operations in Sirte on Monday. It said its planes hit eight targets Sunday, including ammunition stores and rocket launchers.

Council forces have previously retreated from Sirte and another Gaddafi stronghold, Bani Walid, after poorly organized attacks met fierce resistance.

— Reuters