Fighters for Libya's interim rebel government struggled to make gains in an assault on Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte on Saturday with bloody street battles against loyalist forces fiercely defending the most symbolic of the shattered regime’s remaining strongholds.
The fresh attack into the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte contrasted with a standoff in the mountain enclave of Bani Walid, where undisciplined rebel attackers were unceremoniously trounced in a second failed offensive.
Most of the hundreds of fighters assaulting Sirte are from Misrata, a city to the northwest along the coast that held out for weeks against a brutal Qaddafi siege during the civil war. Revolutionary commanders were trying to open a second front into Sirte, from the east.
Reports on the exact strength of Sirte's defenders vary wildly, but they are said to be highly trained and organized professional soldiers, rather than conscripts, and may have brigade strength.
Rebel forces were met by a rain of gunfire, rockets and mortars as they entered Qaddafi's home town. A field hospital set up outside Sirte at a gas station filled with wounded fighters, including some from a convoy hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Twenty-four rebel were killed and 54 wounded in the day’s battles, the military council from the nearby city of Misrata told AFP.
During the assault the pro-Qaddafi radio station in Sirte repeatedly aired a recorded message it said was from the fugitive strongman, urging the city's defenders to fight on.
“You must resist fiercely. You must kick them out of Sirte,” A voice resembling Qaddafi's, whose authenticity could not be confirmed, said. “If they get inside Sirte, they are going to rape the women.”
The intense resistance by Qaddafi loyalists in his remaining strongholds has stalled forces for Libya's interim rebel government just weeks after they swept into Tripoli and pushed Qaddafi from power.
Sirte and Bani Walid are the main bastions of backers of the old regime in Libya’s coastal plain, but smaller holdouts remain in the deserts of the center of the country — and another major stronghold, Sabha, lies in the deep south of the country.
The tough resistance has raised fears of a protracted insurgency of the sort that has played out in Iraq and Afghanistan as the new rebel government struggles to make order out of the chaos Libya has fallen into.
"We have the ability to continue this resistance for months,” Qaddafi’s spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, vowed in a phone call Friday to Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become the mouthpiece for Qaddafi.
A military spokesman for the transitional government admitted they do not know Qaddafi's location.
Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani pointed to the still uncollected bounty of nearly $2 million that the new leadership has put on the fugitive leader’s head, telling Reuters, “Up to now we don’t have any certain information or intelligence about his whereabouts.”
Columns of black smoke rose over Sirte, as revolutionary fighters backed by heavy machine guns and rockets tried to push through crowded residential areas in the city. They claimed to have gained less than a mile into the city, along the main coastal highway leading in from the west.
The whereabouts of Qaddafi and several of his sons remain unknown. Other family members have fled to neighboring Algeria and Niger.