Libya conflict: NTC fighters meet Sirte resistance

The anti-Gaddafi fighters at Sirte are made up of battalions from Misrata

Libya's interim authorities say their fighters have entered the outskirts of the coastal city of Sirte, one of the last places still loyal to ex-leader Col Muammar Gaddafi.

Fighters had breached defences south and west of the city, about 8km (5 miles) from the centre on Thursday evening, but met heavy resistance, the National Transitional Council said.

Meanwhile, Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan has arrived in Libya as part of a tour asserting Ankara's regional influence and promoting democracy.

His visit comes a day after crowds in Benghazi cheered UK PM David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the first foreign leaders to visit since Col Gaddafi was ousted.

'We are strong'

An NTC spokesman told the BBC that fighters had been forced to retreat about two kilometres to treat casualties following their incursion into the outlying areas of Sirte, where they reportedly clashed with snipers in a high-rise tower and an elite unit of pro-Gaddafi troops.

The anti-Gaddafi fighters - made up of battalions from Misrata, 200km (120 miles) to the west - suffered at least four deaths and seven wounded, although a report quoting the Misrata Military Council said 11 were killed and 34 hurt.

Col Gaddafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, told a Syrian TV channel that "thousands of volunteers" were ready to "liberate Libya" from the NTC.

"We are in fact strong. We have the capabilities, the means and plans to liberate the whole of Libya," he said in a phone call to the pro-Gaddafi al-Rai channel.

NTC fighters are facing resistance in a handful of pro-Gaddafi bastions, including the desert town of Bani Walid, the southern outpost of Sabha and Sirte, Col Gaddafi's birthplace.

Map of pro-Gaddafi towns

Last week anti-Gaddafi forces said they were hours from taking Bani Walid, but were driven back. One unconfirmed report suggested columns of anti-Gaddafi fighters would again move on the town on Friday.

"We have received orders from our commanders and we are going into Bani Walid today from different locations," fighter Mohammed Jwaida, stationed some 20km north of the town, was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying.

Rapturous reception

The BBC's Peter Biles, in Tripoli, says the visit of Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy left many people in Tripoli and Benghazi clearly elated.

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Abir

Since [the leaders] feel safe to visit Tripoli, it means that there is security and stability”

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The leaders arrived in Tripoli on Thursday morning where they held talks with Libya's interim leader, NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil, pledged support for the NTC and announced a series of measures, including the unfreezing of billions in Libyan assets and funding for landmine clearance.

It signalled another step on the road to normality for Libya, a country that was considered, for a large part of Col Gaddafi's years in power, a pariah state, our correspondent says.

In particular, the visit was an important boost for the members of Libya's interim administration, as they strive to consolidate their authority and legitimacy in Tripoli, he adds.

Under heavy security, Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy travelled to Benghazi, the NTC's eastern stronghold and the seat of Libya's revolution.

There, thousands of people filled central Liberty Square, cheering so loudly that the leaders struggled to make themselves heard.

"It is great to be in free Libya," Mr Cameron told the crowd. "Col Gaddafi said he would hunt you down like rats, but you showed the courage of lions."

Gaddafi inner circle

On Friday, the NTC is to send a delegation to neighbouring Niger in an effort to recover gold and cash believed to have been taken out of Libya by fleeing Gaddafi loyalists.

Mr Sarkozy and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe will also meet Niger's leadership on Friday.

At least 36 members of the fugitive leader's inner circle, including relatives and generals, have fled to neighbouring Algeria and Niger since Tripoli fell to NTC forces last month.

Mr Abdul Jalil said Libya would also ask for the handover of individuals wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The ICC has indicted Col Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam and his intelligence chief for crimes against humanity.

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