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Thousands of Residents Flee Sirte As Anti-Qaddafi Forces Prepare Offensive


NTC fighters drive to take cover from shelling about 500 meters from the entrance to Sirte on October 2.
Thousands of people are fleeing the hometown of ousted Libyan ruler Muammar Qaddafi as anti-Qaddafi forces prepare a major offensive against the besieged city of 70,000.

Sirte is one of the last two remaining strongholds for Qaddafi loyalists, the other being the desert crossroads town of Bani Walid to the southeast of Tripoli. Both Sirte and Bani Walid are surrounded by anti-Qaddafi forces and have been cut off from each other.

Forces of Libya's new interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), say they are preparing to storm the positions of the remaining Qaddafi loyalists in Sirte who have been putting up stiff resistance for several weeks.

But a commander of the anti-Qaddafi forces to the east of Sirte said a full assault is out of the question for now because too many civilians remain in the city.

Early today, correspondents reported seeing convoys with hundreds of residents leaving Sirte. Many had stacked possessions to the roofs of their cars or were sitting on belongings piled into the back of pickup trucks.

Some of the fleeing residents told reporters they were taking advantage of a short lull in fighting to leave Sirte as the humanitarian situation in the city worsens. Many said they are supporters of Qaddafi and didn't shy away from expressing their loyalty to the ousted ruler.

The NTC had called a 48-hour truce to allow civilians to flee but that cease-fire expired on October 2. Some people emerging from the city said they knew nothing about a cease-fire and that the shooting had not stopped.

A correspondent for the French news agency AFP positioned at an NTC checkpoint to the west of Sirte confirmed that fighting with assault rifles and rockets was continuing during the weekend.

Another AFP correspondent at the eastern edge of the encirclement said NTC forces on October 2 used heavy weapons, including tanks, to fire at the positions of Qaddafi loyalists in the center of the city.

Thick smoke could be seen billowing over the eastern front as the two sides fought each other. Qaddafi forces reportedly were firing Grad rockets at the NTC frontlines and have deployed snipers.

Sirte In 'Dire' Situation

Meanwhile, many injured people reportedly were dying in Sirte because of a lack of medical supplies. Medical workers who have fled say patients were dying on operating tables in Sirte's main hospital because fuel for the power generator has run out.

Dibeh Fakhr, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said Sirte was in a "dire" situation.

"The International Committee of the Red Cross managed to get into Sirte through Misurata and visited Ibn Sina hospital, the main hospital in Sirte, to evaluate the humanitarian situation and difficulties faced in the besieged city in recent weeks," Fakhr said.

"The crew of the Red Cross spent many hours in Sirte and evaluated the hospital, which is working under difficult circumstances. There are shortages of doctors, medical instruments, oxygen cylinders, and even the water storage has been affected. The hospital is suffering and so are the doctors."

An ICRC convoy carrying humanitarian aid to Sirte had to turn back because of the fighting. On October 1, the ICRC tried but again failed to deliver medical supplies to a local hospital.

ICRC spokeswoman Soaade Messoudi told a Reuters correspondent in Tripoli on October 2 that some 10,000 people have fled Sirte in recent days.

"[Red Cross officials] have been able to listen to the medical staff and discuss the needs for oxygen and other possible supplies," Messoudi said. "And they also have been able to meet with representatives of the civil society inside Sirte who have relayed the need for food supplies to come in -- baby food, drinking water, and hygiene items.

"This is unfortunately the only thing we have been able to really do because as our team was inside the hospital, the hospital came under fire and the security situation did not allow for them to stay any longer, so we have decided to pull them out as quickly as possible."

U.S. Senator John McCain on October 2 called for Washington to send urgent medical aid to help thousands of people wounded in Libya.

Speaking on CBS television's "Face The Nation" program, McCain quoted NTC figures that say more than 25,000 people have been killed in Libya's civil war with 60,000 people injured and 3,000 maimed.

compiled from agency reports