New town captured in the march to Sirte
SULTANA, Libya: Dozens of new Libyan regime fighters stormed the town of Sultana Monday, braving rocket and artillery attacks from retreating forces of Moamer Qadhafi, marking another victory in their march towards Sirte.
Shouting the war cry “Allahu Akbar!”, “Allah is greater” -and “Hold your heads high, you are Libyans!” the fighters drove into the town – site of steady fighting over the past two days – pushing Qadhafi’s diehards back towards Sirte, some 30 kilometres (20 miles) to the west.
“They want a war, they are getting one. We will kick their butts,” says one of the fighters, Saleh Drisi, as he jumped from his pick-up truck and barged into a house, searching for Qadhafi loyalists.
The two-storey house is deserted as he moves from one room to another.
Over the past two days the fighters of Libya’s interim ruling body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), have steadily moved towards Sirte, Qadhafi’s hometown, from the east.
The fighters are from the eastern city of Benghazi, the initial epicentre of the rebellion which toppled the now fugitive Qadhafi.
The deserted town of Sultana shows signs of steady fighting between the two groups.
Several collapsed houses, walls with bullet holes and compounds with craters where artillery shells and rockets, fired from both sides, have struck are grim testimony to the last two days of firefights.
The NTC fighters quickly take positions and spread out in the town, searching each house even as pro-Qadhafi forces continue shelling the red and white cement houses of the town from a distance.
“There won’t be any of them left now. They have retreated,” says Mustafa bin Dardef, the commander leading the team of fighters, as a rocket slams behind him, just metres (yards) away.
Several fighters, now experienced from months of fierce battles, hit the ground instantly.
“They will not give up easily. They know we are coming towards Sirte. It could be bad from here as we move ahead,” Dardef tells an AFP reporter travelling with his men.
Seconds later his radio crackles, and he hears that a fighter from his brigade has been wounded a few kilometres ahead.
Dardef heads off to rescue the injured fighter, but orders his men to deploy in and around Sultana.
His men begin occupying almost every house and the large swathe of desert land around it.
“Look at this. The clothes of Qadhafi men,” says Drisi as he picks a green shirt and a pair of green trousers, the uniform usually worn by loyalists of the former Libyan strongman, from a room in the house he is searching.
But strewn throughout the house’s five rooms are also clothes belonging to the family which had been forced to leave in a hurry when the fighting erupted.
A broken refrigerator, torn mattresses, and empty shelves, testify to the shattering of the domestic household.
“They (Qadhafi men) came here and forced the people out who left out of fear,” says another fighter as he goes through the house.
The fighting around Sultana is however not over yet.
Qadhafi forces continue to hit back at the town and areas around it.
Steady gunfire and rocket attacks continue through most of the day until sunset, with projectiles landing metres (yards) away from the NTC fighters holed up in the town.
Around two hours later Dardef returns, saying the fighter he went to rescue had died.
“He was from our brigade. He is dead and another one is wounded,” says a crestfallen Dardef as a hush falls on his team who gathers around him.
“But the good news is that our fighters, some from our brigade and some from others, have moved some more kilometres ahead. In a couple of days, we would be in Sirte,” he asserts, ordering his men to follow him to a nearby mosque to spend the night.
Another team stays behind to guard the town.
“We have taken this town. We have to keep it. It now belongs to a free Libya,” says Youssef, a fighter who opts to stay back and spend the night in Sultana.