BENGHAZI: Libya’s new rulers on Wednesday declared victory in the battle for the key southern city of Sabha, one of the last strongholds of forces loyal to deposed despot Moamer Qaddafi.
Officials of the National Transitional Council, Libya’s interim ruling body, said there were only small pockets of resistance in Sabha, the country’s largest desert city and home to a strategically vital military base.
The United States prepared, meanwhile, to raise the US flag over its reopening embassy in Tripoli, after President Barack Obama met Libya’s new leader in New York and said the world would stand with his country as it consolidates freedom.
"We are in complete control of the city of Sabha. Everybody, including (those who were) pro-Qaddafi, are now with the revolution," said Abdelmajid Seif Ennasr, who represents the NTC in Sabha.
The NTC’s fighters were only encountering "resistance from some individuals here and there," he told AFP.
"Sabha is totally under the control of the revolutionaries," said Mohammed Wardugu, the Benghazi spokesman of the "Desert Shield Brigade" that is fighting in the region.
The battle for Sabha, a city of 100,000 inhabitants in an area dominated by the Qaddafi clan, first broke out on June 12 after two days of anti-regime protests in the sprawling oasis.
On Tuesday, Wardugu said the NTC forces had taken control of the airport and a garrison in Sabha and forced 300 Qaddafi mercenaries to flee before capturing 150 of his loyalist fighters.
Elsewhere on the battlefront, anti-Qaddafi authorities admitted heavy losses in an assault on Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, but said they have captured a string of oasis towns.
At least three NTC fighters, all in their 30s, were killed and 17 wounded Tuesday around Sirte as they encountered unexpectedly fierce resistance, said medics.
"The offensive on Sirte has been high intensity in terms of casualties," Dr Suheib Abu Garza told AFP in Misrata, about 150 kilometers (95 miles) east of Sirte, where many of the casualties of battle are being brought.
Overall, medics said at least 45 NTC fighters have been killed and more than 200 wounded since they moved on Sirte from the west and south on September 15, while another NTC force is fighting from the east.
Such volumes of serious cases, Garza said, had not been seen since Qaddafi loyalists laid siege to Misrata soon after the rebellion against his four decades of iron-fisted rule erupted in February.
Sporadic rocket fire and mortar exchanges shook Sirte, witnesses said, although the former rebels have reduced their use of heavy artillery since Sunday in a bid to give families a chance to flee.
Meanwhile, 16 patients — most in critical condition — were evacuated on a Qatari military plane to Malta as doctors said the region’s hospitals were overwhelmed.
NTC forces suspect Qaddafi enjoys a broad base of support in Sirte.
"The majority of residents are with Qaddafi," said Zuber al-Gadir, spokesman of the Misrata military council, adding their persistent loyalty to the ousted leader was a legacy of his now defunct propaganda machine.
In Harawa, an AFP correspondent saw about nine NTC tanks moving towards Sirte’s eastern front, possibly in a bid to boost defences in the face of steady artillery and machine-gun fire from Qaddafi loyalists.
NATO said that in the vicinity of Sirte on Tuesday it struck six air missile systems, two military ammunition or storage facilities, one command and control node, one military vehicle storage facility, and one tank.
In the Al-Jufra oasis towns of Waddan and Hun, the alliance said it took out one military vehicle storage facility, four anti-aircraft guns and one armed vehicle.
NTC forces said Wednesday they seized most of Waddan and were only facing pockets of resistance in other Al-Jufra towns, about 300 kilometres (186 miles) south of Sirte.
"Seventy percent of the Al-Jufra has been liberated. Waddan is freed, our forces entered the town following NATO bombing of Al-Hisha dam, 20 kilometers (13 miles) from the town," Mustafa Huni, an NTC official in Benghazi told AFP.
Despite the setbacks, the fugitive Qaddafi told his remaining loyalists in Libya that the new regime is only temporary, in his latest comments aired on Syrian-based Arrai television, Qaddafi.
"What is happening in Libya is a charade which can only take place thanks to the (NATO-led) air raids, which will not last forever," said Qaddafi, who has been at large since NTC forces overran Tripoli on August 25.
"Do not rejoice and don’t believe that one regime has been overthrown and another imposed with the help of air and maritime strikes," he added.
The recording was the first by Qaddafi since September 8, when he denied reports he had fled to Algeria or Niger.
As Libya’s new rulers were feted in New York, however, interim Prime Minister Mahmud Jibril said the country’s first formal government since Qaddafi’s ousted would be announced within seven to 10 days.
"Most of the work has been done. It is a question of the number of ministries and the location of the ministries," said Jibril, noting that "for a country which was absent from any democratic process for 42 years… what’s taking place is natural".
His statement came after a special summit at which world leaders promised to help the new government and President Obama announced the US embassy would be reopening and the ambassador, Gene Cretz, returning for Thursday’s flag-raising ceremony.
And in another sign that Qaddafi’s days on the run are numbered, the African Union, which had long held out against recognizing the NTC as Libya’s new rulers, on Tuesday finally announced it was doing so.