Libya readies new cabinet as Sirte battle rages

Mahmud Jibril was still expected to retain his post as Libya`s interim premier.

Last Updated: Sep 18, 2011, 22:11 PM IST

Tripoli: Libya`s victorious rebels prepared to unveil a new government on Sunday even as their troops met fierce resistance from loyalists of fugitive strongman Muammar Gaddafi in his last strongholds.

The new regime`s military spokesman, Ahmed Omar Bani, said Gaddafi diehards in his hometown Sirte and the oasis of Bani Walid to its southwest would be defeated in a "matter of days”, despite the intensity of the fighting.

Last-minute haggling, meanwhile, delayed the announcement of the new government line-up, a National Transitional Council official said.

NTC number two Mahmud Jibril, a former Gaddafi regime official, stood accused by some of his colleagues of failing to consult enough with long-standing grass roots opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the official said.

Jibril was still expected to retain his post as interim premier, while Ali Tarhuni was touted to be named vice president in charge of economic affairs.

The defence portfolio was expected to go to Osama al-Juwili and oil to Abdel Rahman bin Yezza.

Fighters loyal to the new government prepared for a new multi-pronged advance on Sirte on the Mediterranean coast.

Troops moving in from the east were some 50 kilometres (30 miles) of Sirte and came under steady rocket and machine-gun fire from Gaddafi loyalists on Sunday, a correspondent reported.

He reported at least 12 tanks loaded with fighters massing east of Sirte, along with dozens of pick-ups filled with anti-aircraft guns and hundreds of combatants.

There was sustained and intense rocket and machine-gun fire from both sides.

On either side of the road to Sirte, crouching fighters advanced slowly through the desert scrub. Fighters said they had heard one of their colleagues had been killed, but there was no confirmation of casualties.

"There are steady rocket attacks from the other side. We are also firing but we are gaining ground," one NTC commander, Mustafa bin Dardaf, said.

On the western front, advancing NTC forces swept into Sirte on Saturday before retreating under heavy artillery fire after two hours of clashes, commanders said.

"We are retreating to regroup and re-enter again from three fronts," said Al-Dhahira Brigade commander Saleb Abu Shaala.

Doctors at a field hospital reported at least 10 killed and 40 wounded in the fighting.

Front line fighters and commanders gave contrasting reports of progress in Sirte, with men on the ground acknowledging tough opposition and those in charge downplaying the resistance.

"We don`t even have five percent of Sirte because we just go in and out," said one fighter, Abdul Rauf al-Mansuri.

However, the NTC`s Bani claimed that "in a few days the situation will completely change in Sirte and Bani Walid which will be under our control."

Speaking at a news conference in Tripoli, Bani said the "geographical nature and the strong presence of snipers" in Bani Walid prevented a quick victory in the oasis, 180 kilometres (110 miles) southeast of Tripoli.

"We managed to enter the town on the north side that we control. We have advanced towards the centre but we were attacked by snipers and mercenaries who have launched rockets from the mountains," he said.

Gaddafi loyalists were putting up a stiff resistance in Bani Walid, a correspondent said.

The new leadership`s forces are trying to gain new ground there, with some pushing further into the town while others gathered some six kilometres (3.7 miles) from its centre.

A leader of the NTC fighters said that the battle resumed at midday after unrelenting clashes from midday on Saturday until early dawn.

"There is an unconfirmed number of wounded from today`s fighting," Dr Mabruk Kornfan said.

Correspondents heard loud explosions and intermittent gunfire from inside Bani Walid, and rockets exploded near NTC positions on the outskirts.

Some fighters left the town with prisoners from Gaddafi loyalists, as residents of Bani Walid fled.

"There is no electricity and no food in the town," Mohammed al-Khazmi said. "There are many rebels inside fighting forces loyal to Gaddafi, but they are meeting stiff resistance."

At least seven NTC fighters have been reported killed over the past two days in Bani Walid.

In Tripoli, Bani predicted that "in the coming days all of Libya will be entirely under the control of the revolutionaries."

NATO has kept pounding Gaddafi`s remaining armour, saying its warplanes hit 11 targets around Sirte on Saturday.

They also hit 11 targets in Al-Jufra oasis and three in Sabha in the deep south.

Meanwhile, two Libyan pilots who had defected with their fighter jets to Malta seven months ago, refusing to bomb protesters in Benghazi who had risen up against Gaddafi, finally returned home on Sunday.

"I am proud of what my father did," said Ali Rabiti, whose father Mohammed defected along with colleague Abdullah Salheen just days after the revolt erupted in mid-February.

Bureau Report