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Libyan forces fight over Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte while leaders try to form new government
SIRTE, Libya (AP) ' With NATO jets roaring overhead, revolutionary forces fought their way into Moammar Gadhafi's hometown Saturday in the first significant push into the stubborn stronghold in about a week.
Libya's new leaders also tried to move on the political front, promising to announce in the coming week a new interim government that it hopes will help unite the country. However, disagreements remain about what the Cabinet should look like.
The National Transitional Council led the rebellion that forced Gadhafi into hiding and has taken over the leadership of the oil-rich North African nation even as it continues to fight forces still loyal to the fugitive leader.
The NTC-appointed prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril sought support from leaders at the United Nations on Saturday, telling them that "a new Libya is coming to life" as a nation committed to democracy, equality and reintegration into the international community. He said the council was committed to drafting a constitution that would be put to the Libyans for a referendum.
But the council members have been struggling to form a new interim government amid political infighting over everything from which cities should be represented and how many Cabinet ministers there should be. That has raised concerns that the former rebels will splinter into rival factions now that they no longer have the ouster of Gadhafi as a common cause.
NTC chief Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, speaking to reporters in Benghazi after returning to Libya from New York where he attended the U.N. General Assembly, acknowledged differences but said a new government would be named next week to guide the country until formal elections can be held.
"This is the crisis management phase and it should be led by people who are efficient, even if they have to be from the same city, until the liberation of the country and until the constitution is established," he said. "Then they can choose a government that they want."
Revolutionary forces also have been unable to rout well-armed Gadhafi loyalists from strongholds in his hometown of Sirte, Bani Walid and several southern enclaves.
Hundreds of fighters launched a new assault on Sirte on Saturday, a week after heavy fighting forced them to pull back to the city's outskirts. Explosions rocked the city and smoke rose into the sky as Gadhafi's forces fired mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades at the fighters. Ambulances sped from the direction of the front line, and a doctor said at least one fighter was killed and 25 others wounded in the battle.
Osama Nuttawa al-Swehli, who was helping coordinate the advance, said fighters moved on the city from four different areas, meeting heavy resistance. He said NATO airstrikes took out some of the loyalists' tanks, although that could not be confirmed.
He said the intent wasn't to capture to Sirte but to increase pressure on forces inside, claiming they had intercepted radio signals suggesting high-ranking former regime officials were in the city.
"The point wasn't to take the city. It was to squeeze it. When you squeeze a city, you can get what you want from it," he said, adding that he has heard Gadhafi's son Muatassim on radio broadcasts.
The former rebels had said they would wait to launch a fullscale attack until civilians could escape Sirte, but a brigade commander, Mohammed al-Sugatri, said the revolutionaries decided to advance because several families living in Sirte who are originally from the nearby anti-Gadhafi city of Misrata were in danger.
"There are lots of people from Misrata who are stuck in the city living in basements. They have no food or water and many of their children are sick so we had no choice but to attack," he said.
The two sides have been locked in a standoff since former rebels tried to advance on the city a week ago but were repelled by fierce resistance. More than a month since the then-rebels swept into Tripoli and pushed Gadhafi out of power, they are still struggling to overrun his remaining strongholds in the center of the country and the south.
Saturday's advance in Sirte began when revolutionary fighters occupied a key roundabout called Zafaran west of the downtown area in the Mediterranean coastal city, 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. They then advanced to a broadcasting station on a major boulevard. Many were wounded by hand grenades and snipers firing from tall buildings, according to witnesses returning from the front lines.
Moftah Mohammed, a 28-year-old fighter who brought four of his wounded friends to a field hospital on the western edge of the city, described heavy gunfire from houses and fierce street battles.
He said his friends were wounded by snipers who shot them as they drove forward to fire a rocket-propelled grenade, then attackers threw hand grenades at two other revolutionary fighters who went to pull the wounded from the car.
Revolutionary fighters tried to push into the city last weekend but were driven back by fierce rocket barrages and gunfire, with at least 25 former rebels killed and dozens wounded. They pulled back to regroup and let civilians leave the area, although the two sides exchanged fire daily.
More than 1,300 families have left the city in the past week, fighters said. A few dozen waiting at a checkpoint outside the city on Saturday described rapidly deteriorating conditions, with entire families hiding in basements and children suffering from diarrhea because clean water is scarce.
A field outside the city's western side was crowded with trucks and ambulances filled with wounded men.
Munther Kareyem, a doctor at the field hospital, said one dead fighter and more than 25 wounded had been brought in with shrapnel wounds. One man lost a leg.
Men chanted "There is no God but Allah" as the slain fighter was carried out, covered by a bloodstained white sheet.
In the capital, Tripoli, a series of explosions went off at a military storage warehouse on a Libyan naval base near the harbor Saturday afternoon and heavy black smoke poured out of the facility. A revolutionary command spokesman, Abdel-Rahman Busin, said it was an accident caused by either an electrical problem or the improper storage of ammunition. He said no injuries were reported.
Underscoring the paranoia among Libyans with Gadhafi still on the loose, revolutionary fighters rushed to the site and many speculated it could have been an attack by loyalists who had sneaked back into Tripoli.
Al-Shalchi was reporting from Tripoli. Associated Press writers Kim Gamel in Tripoli and Rami al-Shaheibi contributed to this report.