CIVILIANS pouring out of the besieged city of Sirte accused NATO of committing genocide yesterday as revolutionary forces reinforced their numbers and prepared for a new attack on Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's home town.
Long lines of civilian vehicles were seen leaving after a night punctuated by NATO air attacks. Forces fighting for the National Transitional Council (NTC) added their own artillery and mortar rounds at regular intervals.
Civilians, many looking scared or sullen, said that conditions inside Sirte were "disastrous". They made claims which, if verified, offer a conundrum for Nato, which operates with a UN mandate on the need to protect civilian life.
"It has been worse than awful," said Riab Safran, 28, as his car was searched by revolutionary fighters. His family had been sleeping on the beach, he said.
"They have hit all kinds of buildings: schools, hospitals," he said, referring to NATO airstrikes.
He said he could not distinguish between NATO and NTC attacks but believed it was a NATO bomb that destroyed part of his home on Saturday. NATO said it hit a number of military targets including a rocket launcher, artillery, and three ammunition stores.
Another resident said: "NATO bombing is killing civilians. Where is the United Nations? Where is the Muslim world to stop this genocide of the people of Sirte?"
The man, who gave his name as Mohammed Ali Alum Sekily, said six members of his family had been killed, but declined to give details. An eight-day-old baby brought out in one car was born on the beach, the family said.
Some of those interviewed by The Times said that Gaddafi loyalists were forcing residents to stay in the city. Others said that residents were frightened of revolutionary fighters who were rumoured to be abducting women from cars trying to leave Sirte.
NTC fighters denied the charges. I saw them offering food and water to those queueing to leave.
Residents said that power and water had run out and petrol was 400 Libyan dinars ($A330) a gallon. The water shortage has produced an epidemic of diseases, according to medical staff at a clinic in the town of Harawa, 35km east of Sirte. However, Gaddafi loyalists appeared to have plentiful stores of pasta, oil, flour and ammunition, residents said. Loyalists used an open radio channel to taunt NTC fighters, insisting that the city would never be taken.
The NTC forces checked the identity papers of those leaving against lists of known Gaddafi security personnel and senior former government figures, and they detained a number of men.
Following their unsuccessful assault on Saturday, one commander said that the NTC leadership thought that the attack was badly co-ordinated.
"We don't want to lose people, we don't want another Saturday, this was a mistake," said Omran Al Awaib from the Tiger Brigade.
The attacking forces lost eight dead and 153 wounded as they tried to move up the main road into the city. But the hard-won gains were abandoned the same evening as NTC troops retreated, leaving a barricade of sand-filled shipping containers. It has now been dismantled by Gaddafi forces.
There was almost no fighting yesterday except for long-range artillery and mortars. NTC forces were finally able to link up with reinforcements pushing towards the city from Benghazi, completing their encirclement of Sirte.
An NTC commander said that a new offensive would begin in the coming days.