Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Libya/War for oil: Life inside besieged Libyan city of Sirte is "unimaginable"

By Tim Gaynor

SIRTE | Tue Oct 4, 2011 2:36pm EDT

Oct 4 (Reuters) - Fleeing besieged Sirte, Ali Durgham couldn't stop the tears as he described how his father had been killed by a stray shell as he walked to the mosque with his brother.

"He died in my arms," Durgham said. "I buried him yesterday."

The young man's uncle is now in Sirte's Ibn Sina hospital -- but it, too, has been hit in the fighting, residents said.

"The hospital is being attacked with shells," Durgham said, echoing other people leaving the city. "It's filled with dirt. There's only three doctors who are working with patients."

Despite the shelling and a deeper push into the city by interim government forces ahead of what may be a final battle, he said he was determined to go back into Sirte on Wednesday to bring his uncle out.

The stories told by the people streaming out of Muammar Gaddafi's hometown, mostly recounted at checkpoints manned by anti-Gaddafi forces, provide a grim snapshot of life inside.

"It is unimaginable back there," Masoud Awidat, who had just driven out of the town in a car with a bullet-riddled windscreen and door, told Reuters.

"It gets worse every day. There's no food. There are fires, apartments are destroyed."

Terrified residents are sleeping in the streets and under stairs for fear that their roofs will fall in overnight.

People talked of two families whose cars had been hit by rocket propelled grenades as they tried to flee the city.

One man showed a piece of string holding up his trousers because he had not eaten for so long.

"These used to fit me," he said.

A Red Cross team who managed to deliver medical supplies to Sirte's hospital has reported that the city of about 100,000 people has no power. Civilians say many streets are flooded.

Sirte has been under attack for about three weeks, the target of a couple of all-out assaults and near-constant shelling by interim government forces and NATO air strikes.

"IT WILL BE LIKE GADDAFI SAID"

Pro-Gaddafi fighters inside are putting up fierce resistance and, NATO and some civilians say, forcibly recruiting locals to fight alongside them and preventing people from getting out.

"We reached the outskirts of the city but the militia stopped us from leaving," Awidat said of a previous attempt he made to leave. He managed to slip out on Tuesday morning.

"Where we live there are still families trapped," he said.

Sirte presents a conundrum for the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) and for NATO, whose mandate in Libya is to protect of civilians.

The NTC must strike a balance between a prolonged fight that would delay their efforts to govern and a quicker but bloody victory that would worsen regional divisions and embarrass the fledgling government and its foreign backers.

Some civilians say pro-Gaddafi fighters are hiding in residential areas, raising fears of vicious street battles ahead.

"Sirte is not going to be like Tripoli," said NTC medic Mashallah Al-Zoy, referring to the relatively easy manner in which anti-Gaddafi fighters swept into the capital.

"It will be street-to-street, house-to-house, like (Gaddafi) said."

Some residents now cannot afford the scarce fuel they need to drive out to safety, the United Nations and aid groups say.

Residents said pasta and flour had become precious commodities.

NTC fighters, viewed with suspicion by many people leaving Sirte, have been handing out food and drinks at makeshift kiosks along the route.

"I haven't eaten bread in weeks," said Fathi al-Naji as he crammed a tuna sandwich into his mouth.

Some people leaving on Tuesday looked lost.

Three women and two men from Chad, who said they had lived in Sirte for years, wandered along a roadside not far from the town, with nine bewildered children but no belongings.

When asked how much longer he estimated food supplies in Sirte could last, one of the men answered: "what food?". (Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal in Sirte; Writing by Barry Malone; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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