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September 20, 2011

Libyan families crave safety amid Sirte onslaught


September 20, 2011

SIRTE, Libya: Libyan families on Monday fled Sirte as sporadic explosions rocked the Mediterranean city which is one of the final strongholds of fugitive leader Moamer Qadhafi. “Things are not good because of the clashes,” said Tarek Mohammed travelling with his wife and daughter out of the city at breakneck speed.
“Qadhafi’s forces have been firing heavy artillery from in front and between our houses,” said the resident of zone three, which hugs the coastline and has been at the epicentre of the last few days of fighting.
“There were a lot of deaths yesterday, including children,” he said. A family fleeing Sirte towards Misrata charged that forces loyal to Qadhafi have been using them as “human shields” by putting up their guns within residential areas and have prevented them from leaving the city.
“A Qadhafi soldier prevented us from leaving us at gunpoint so we had to take a roundabout road early this morning before clashes started,” said Sanaa Ali Mansur, a 25-year-old escaping with her husband.
A few of the families travelling out of the besieged city were escorted by former rebels. At one checkpoint east of Sirte, NTC fighters prevented them from speaking to the press. Others were just to afraid to say a word.
New regime forces interrupted an AFP correspondent from interviewing a family from Sirte—probably because they fear their narratives could tarnish their reputation.
“Three of my neighbour’s children died in crossfire yesterday,” said Wafia Ahmed a 70-year-old Bedouin woman with traditional tattoos who also fled from zone three. “I left because I was so afraid even though the rebels were good to us,” she said, adding that since crossing over to the areas under control of the National Transitional Council she has been able to get medical care. Ahmed said that support for Qadhafi had dried out in Sirte which has suffered shortages of fuel, electricity, water and medicine for

months and that the only diehard loyalists are members of his tribe.
“It is just the Gadadfa tribe that still stands behind him,” she said of Qadhafi clan, adding that due to an information blackout “a few brainless, ignorant” residents continued to support the strongman. But NTC forces suspect Qadhafi enjoys a broader base of support.
“The majority of residents are with Qadhafi,” said Zuber al-Gadir, spokesman of the Misrata military council, adding that the loyalty stems from the fugitive leader’s control of local media. Rockets fired from areas controlled by pro-Qadhafi forces landed near the highway entering the city from the west suggesting this might be the target of the low-precision but high-impact weapons.
NTC fighters hit back with mortar rounds and rocket fire but they are still keeping the main arteries out of the city clear in a bid to let families get out before tackling diehard Qadhafi loyalists street by street.
“We are trying to get the citizens out of the city and out of the way of clashes to take them to the places that are liberated,” Commander Salah Badi told AFP.
Badi, who is leading the NTC offensive in southern Sirte, said the men under his command are refraining from using heavy artillery in the city centre to avoid loss of life and property.
“We cannot use heavy weapons inside the town,” he said. But after five days of roaring battle in and around Sirte, with an estimated population of 130,000, nerves are frayed. There is no clear indicator of what percentage of residents risk getting caught in the crossfire.
“I am scared of the battle and the random fire from both sides,” wailed Sirte resident Mohammed Rumeitri, 65, adding that only a quarter of the population has fled.
Saleh Jeha, a commander of the Misrata military council, says he estimates “half the city” has fled based on field reports. In a mosque on the main west to east highway, eight families—a total of 84 men, women and children—took shelter from the scorching sun and the deafening blasts of battle. “We came here yesterday looking for a safe place,” explained Sania Tahar, 29, a Libyan-American mother of three, surrounded by women in colourful desert wraps. Tahar, who taught English in Tawarga before the war started, said the group had wandered aimlessly from the village of Um al-Kandeel, east of Sirte, until they stumbled into rebels who sheltered them at the mosque. “All we want is security... the women and children are afraid” she said.
Another woman, Aziza, added: “The children are sick and scared from the sound and smell of gunfire and explosions.” “Whether you go right or left, you can get shot,” said Mariam Umar, 41.

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