Peter Beaumont reports from Sirte on the final push to end the war in Libya: On Thursday a pall of white smoke hung across this district as shells exploded every few minutes, and people in the hotel warned of a sniper firing from the minaret of a mosque 500 metres away from the hotel.
“We want to get this thing finished quickly,” said a young bearded fighter standing by the wrecked lifts. “We had a plan to try and open the road to the hospital to evacuate civilians, but there were too many snipers. Yesterday we tried many times to open the road.”
It is a reflection of the nature of Libya’s last battle. The new government has said it will announce full liberation when Sirte is taken, even though a second town – Bani Walid – has also yet to fall.
But it is on the fall of Sirte that all expectations have been pegged.
The battle is a ramshackle affair. On the west side of the city, where the katibas [rebels] from Misrata launch almost daily attempts to take the Gaddafi stronghold of the Ougadougou conference centre, the fighters gathered for an impromptu breakfast outside a little field hospital. On Thursday they had poured in behind three tanks only to be driven back by missiles.
On the east side of Sirte, reached via a dirt road that skirts the city, the forces appear more organised. In the morning, a group met at a roundabout on the outskirts of the city, close to where a tank was pounding the buildings below. A burst of bullets came across the roundabout, sending the men scuttling for cover.
“Yesterday the Gaddafi forces come up to the roundabout with an anti-aircraft gun and fired at us,” said Salam Farjani, 37, who came to Sirte from Bayda. There were no civilians around at this time; Farjani explained that they try to leave early in the morning and at dusk, when it is safer.
“The ones who are left are the ones who have no petrol for their cars,” he said. “And the Gaddafi fighters in the town are just fighting for their survival.”