SIRTE, Libya — After weeks of intense fighting, Moammar Gaddafi’s home town appeared Saturday to have been largely destroyed, with most of its population fled and holes the size of manhole covers blown in apartment buildings and the ousted leader’s showcase convention center.
Revolutionary forces are now battling to defeat the last of the pro-Gaddafi fighters in the strategically important coastal city 278 miles southeast of Tripoli. On Saturday, the thud of tank rounds and the whine of Katyusha rockets filled the air, and black smoke rose above a contested central neighborhood. But the Gaddafi fighters held on, setting up sniper lairs in a densely packed residential district, revolutionary fighters said.
For Libya’s interim government, capturing the city is paramount and would effectively end the eight-month civil war. But the damage wreaked in Sirte raises the question of whether its residents will go quietly into the post-Gaddafi future — or retain a smoldering anger that could fuel an insurgency.
Under Gaddafi, Sirte grew from a sleepy fishing village to a city of 100,000, favored with some of the country’s finest buildings and public services. Many residents were staunch supporters of the former Libyan leader.
One of them, Sadina Muhammed, said Saturday that she and other residents “will love Gaddafi until death.” She fled Sirte a week ago, after a rebel rocket smashed into her house in the embattled city.
“My family’s home was completely ruined,” she said, standing at a checkpoint outside the city with her 18-year-old daughter, whose arm was in a sling from the blast.
At a field hospital closer to the city, a black-robed resident of Sirte complained that the revolutionaries were also looting. “They take things in the house. If they don’t find something, they will destroy the house,” she said. The woman, who gave her name only as Asma, left for a nearby village two weeks ago.
The ragtag anti-Gaddafi fighters are motivated but undisciplined and untrained, and journalists have spotted a number of them looting. They have battled Gaddafi fighters who have used civilian homes and institutions as cover.
A drive through some of Sirte’s “liberated” neighborhoods revealed the pounding the city has taken. In one area, block after block of small mustard-yellow apartments were peppered with small-arms fire. Artillery fire had blasted holes in the walls, and front doors were ripped off their hinges. The burned-out carcasses of a truck and car littered one empty street.
At the nearby Ouagadougou convention center, a complex where Gaddafi once hosted Arab and African leaders, the beige walls were charred black, and windows were shattered.
Gabriele Rossi, the emergency coordinator in Sirte for the aid group Doctors Without Borders, said the city appeared to have sustained some of the greatest damage of the war. “The part we have seen is almost completely destroyed,” he said.
Revolutionary forces blame the pro-Gaddafi fighters for some of the damage, saying they have also used heavy weapons and have spurned entreaties to surrender.
But the attacking forces clearly feel no need for restraint in bombarding the Gaddafi loyalists. That’s especially true of the many fighters from Misurata, a city to the west scarred by a bloody siege by Gaddafi’s troops in the spring.
The revolutionaries have been firing purloined antiaircraft guns and artillery at apartment buildings where pro-Gaddafi snipers have holed up, causing heavy damage.
Asked why his side used such weapons instead of conducting more surgical strikes, one commander, Bashir Bin Hameda, responded: “We’re not the Special Forces. We’re just teachers, doctors and engineers.”
Hameda said he usually runs the company cafeteria at a steel plant.
Another fighter, Mohamed Nijar, said he used the antiaircraft gun mounted on his pickup truck to attack snipers because “it works.”
The pro-Gaddafi forces now seem to be battling impossible odds. But many of them appear to believe they have no way out, and so are fighting to the death. Some may also have been influenced by propaganda disseminated by Gaddafi’s media before he was toppled.
“The TV told us these people kill and cut off parts of the body. So we were afraid of them,” said Asma’s husband, who identified himself only as Ahmed, referring to the anti-Gaddafi forces. He, however, had come to believe that a lot of the revolutionaries were “good people,” he said.
Doctors fear thousands of civilians may be trapped in the small areas of the city still being contested.
“We are extremely concerned for those people that are inside [Sirte] and cannot get access to health care,” Rossi said.