Libya NTC Forces in 'Tactical' Withdrawal from Bani Walid
Fighters loyal to Libya's new leaders on Friday thrust deep into the city of Sirte and into desert oasis Bani Walid, two of fugitive Moammar Gadhafi’s few remaining bastions, Agence France Presse reporters said.
On the political front, officials in Tripoli said a new transitional government would be announced on Sunday, while the U.N. General Assembly gave Libya's U.N. seat to the former rebel National Transitional Council.
Columns of NTC fighters backed by tanks launched an early morning assault on Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown on the central Mediterranean coast, a day after a first attack was repulsed.
Heavy fighting ensued at the airport and southeast of the city center.
NTC forces fired anti-aircraft guns and heavy cannon within the city limits and Gadhafi fighters responded with sniper fire and Grad rockets.
Senior military commander Salem Jeah said NTC forces were nearing the center of Sirte, with an AFP correspondent reporting late in the afternoon that the front line was about one kilometer away.
"We are advancing in from the west and the south towards the city center," Jeah said. "Our forces retreated strategically during the night but are now speeding towards the center and some have already entered."
Field commander Hadi Saleq reported skirmishes on three fronts.
"The fighting is concentrated on September 1 Street, residential zone 2 in the city center and around the airport," Saleq said.
The overall casualty figures were six dead and 35 wounded, based on an AFP hospital tally.
Emergency worker Mohammed al-Ashraf said 10 NTC fighters were wounded and one killed in September 1 Street, where there was heavy fighting.
At least 200 NTC pick-up trucks fanned out from a roundabout on the street firing heavy weapons to clear the area of Gadhafi fighters amid incoming sniper fire and sporadic rocket attacks.
Ironically, resident and university student Abdul al-Mutaly said it was not until Friday that he had learned Tripoli had fallen to the NTC on August 23.
There had been no electricity for a month, "so people were completely in the dark about what was going on outside" Sirte.
The NTC said its fighters had also entered the oasis town of Bani Walid southeast of Tripoli, but they made a "tactical withdrawal" in the evening due to sniper fire.
"It is useless to hold on to positions overnight in a hostile environment," a commander told AFP.
An NTC spokesman said earlier "our revolutionaries have entered Bani Walid," 170 kilometers southeast of the capital, adding with what proved to be excessive optimism that "the situation will be resolved this evening."
An AFP photographer reported his driver seeing around a dozen ambulances streaming out of Bani Walid containing NTC casualties.
It was not immediately known how many had been killed or wounded.
The photographer also reported fighting at the town's market, while an NTC source said Gadhafi forces were entrenched only in the Dawim area of the town.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Libya on Friday, boosting international support for the NTC a day after Britain's David Cameron and France's Nicolas Sarkozy became the first foreign leaders to visit the new Libya.
Erdogan was greeted on arrival by NTC chief Mustafa Abdul Jalil.
"I am happy to have been a witness to the advent of democracy in Libya," he said after joining Friday prayers.
He hailed "the memory of martyrs who sacrificed themselves for their country and their religion" and urged holdouts in Sirte and Bani Walid to "embrace your brothers and join other Libyans."
His visit came a day after Cameron and Sarkozy, whose forces spearheaded the NATO air war that helped topple Gadhafi, were mobbed by jubilant crowds in Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi.
But Gadhafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim accused them of coming to plunder Libya's riches.
"The visit marks the start of a project of colonization of Libya," Ibrahim charged in a telephone call late on Thursday to Syria-based Arrai television.
"They are hurrying to collect the fruits of the fall of Tripoli ... because they obviously fear the arrival of America and other countries wanting a slice of the cake," he said, without disclosing where he was phoning from.
"They hurried to Tripoli to make secret deals with the collaborators and the traitors, and to take the control of oil and investments under the pretext of rebuilding," Ibrahim said.
Sarkozy had insisted in Tripoli that there was "no ulterior motive" in Western assistance to the new Libya.
"We did what we did because we thought it was right," he declared.
Ibrahim added "thousands" of loyalists were ready to fight "on all fronts" and that victory over the NTC forces was assured.
NATO has said about 15 percent of Gadhafi’s forces were still operational.
Gadhafi and members of his inner circle have been in hiding since Tripoli was overrun, with the fugitive strongman still believed to be in Libya even though members of his family have fled to Algeria and Niger.
One of them, Gadhafi’s son Saadi, is being held in Niger, where the government said he would not be sent back "where he has no chance of receiving a fair trial and where he could face the death penalty."
In other developments, an NTC official said the new government to be announced on Sunday "will comprise 30 members -- it will be representative of all political groups and all regions -- women are included."
In New York, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to let the NTC take over Libya's U.N. mission.
That will allow Abdul Jalil to attend next week's U.N. gathering of world leaders in New York, where he is to meet U.S. President Barack Obama and other key leaders on the sidelines of the meeting.