Libya conflict: Payback time for Gaddafi's home of Sirte

Anti-Gaddafi fighters stand near burnt cars in Sirte. Photo: 18 October 2011
Image caption Parts of Sirte now lie in ruins as fighting continues

Whatever favours Col Muammar Gaddafi may have bestowed upon Sirte while he was in power, it is certainly payback time now.

The city, his birthplace, which he favoured above all others in Libya, is in ruins. There is hardly a building left unscathed by the fighting.

It is as though Sirte was a spoiled, molly-coddled child in an otherwise ignored family.

The "siblings" are now exacting their revenge.

For most of last week the front line in the city, along the main Dubai Street, barely moved so we used the ground floor of an abandoned house near there as a "base" - to shelter from the sun, to write scripts and as cover when the fighting flared up.

The house, a high-end, three-storey villa in the heart of the city was relatively unscathed by the fighting. A few broken windows and a bit of looting aside, it was largely intact.

We went back there a couple of days ago to find the house completely gutted. It had been deliberately set on fire by soldiers from the transitional government.

They had discovered, by searching through papers they found in a cupboard, that it belonged to an Egyptian banker who had been given a top job by the Gaddafi regime. Vengeance and retribution, nothing else.

Sirte's 'grandeur'

A couple of blocks away another, larger, villa was well ablaze.

This grand, terracotta house was home, we were told, to Col Gaddafi's daughter Aisha. She may as well have set it alight herself when she fled.

Mohammad Durat is a young medical student from the coastal city of Misrata who, off and on, has been volunteering at field hospitals during Libya's nine month-long conflict.

"I'm saddened but not surprised by all the destruction going on in Sirte," he says.

Mr Durat had been shocked by the relative grandeur of the very well-equipped university medical school here - compared with the meagre facilities of his college back in Misrata. He was admittedly a little bit jealous.

"When Misrata was being attacked by Gaddafi forces, a few months ago, they were partying here in Sirte," says the medic.

"Normal laws didn't apply to people here. They could do what they liked - they were above the law."

An accurate reflection, or not, of how much better treated this city and its residents were under Col Gaddafi, the point is that Sirte was envied and despised by many in Benghazi, Misrata, Tobruk and even Tripoli.

They say there was even an audacious, but unsuccessful, attempt by Col Gaddafi to relocate the Libyan capital to Sirte. Nonetheless, he often held his grandest and most lavish events here.

Flattening 'Sector Two'

Just over a year ago, I attended an Arab-African heads of state summit at the indescribably opulent Ouagadougou Conference Centre.

The place is now in ruins, shelled, burned and looted - as is Col Gaddafi's palace a few hundred metres to the west.

It is in an area - known as "Sector Two" - right in the city centre that the fiercest fighting has been focused in recent days.

The front line ebbs and flows. Places that you are one day told are safe turn out to be risky and dangerous the next day.

On more than one occasion we have come under fire from pro-Gaddafi men, who almost certainly know the city, its street and its alleys a lot better than the fighters from Benghazi and Misrata who are trying to take it.

"Sector Two" is a built-up district, no more than a mile square, on the other side of a small park to Dubai Street.

The park must have once been a pretty place with small lakes and tastefully designed buildings.

Uncountable numbers of tank shells and rockets have reduced it to an urban wasteland, even though - bizarrely - a couple of wading birds were still scouring the ponds for fish even as the fighting raged over the weekend.

Unable to dislodge the stubborn and determined Gaddafi loyalists - who probably number no more than a couple of hundred - the frustrated and war-weary soldiers from the transitional government have resorted to flattening "Sector Two", quite literally.

Day after day, thousands of mortars, rockets and tanks shells are aimed in the general direction of the enemy. Such almost indiscriminate firing sometimes goes astray, causing casualties among their own forces. Generally, though, the "tactic" is working.

The last defenders of Col Gaddafi's 1969 revolution are completely encircled.

Perhaps the best option would be to stop the heavy firing and force them to surrender because, sooner or later, they will run out of food and supplies. But the shelling continues.

You can clearly see the emerald green flag of Col Gaddafi's Libya flying, almost defiantly, above buildings in "Sector Two". Targets for the gunners from the attacking army, the flags disappear in a cloud of dust and rubble.

Privileges lost

Sirte is still a very, very dangerous place. Although better organised now than they have been for several days, the transitional government army is not professional nor is it disciplined.

Tales abound of the dreaded Gaddafi snipers ghosting through the attacking lines at night and shooting back on unsuspecting soldiers and journalists from the many ruined tower blocks in Sirte.

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Media captionWyre Davies reports from the frontline

There are even rumours that gunmen are using the city's sewer system to evade capture and to confuse their attackers.

However loyal these men may be to their leader, surely though, there is only one conclusion here. But, when it comes, the people of Sirte will not be celebrating.

Most civilians have now left - escaping by road in cars packed with people and possessions. (Most of the hardcore Gaddafi loyalists and members of his Gaddafi clan departed a long time ago.)

From those that have chosen to remain in the "liberated" parts of the city there are few smiles or waves - no chants of victory, welcoming the defeat of Col Gaddafi. A few green flags still fly above some homes.

Many things in the new Libya will change after the fall of Sirte - some for the better, some for the worse.

Shops on Dubai Street will reopen, the park will be cleaned up - but the coastal city itself is unlikely to enjoy such an elevated, privileged position in the post-Gaddafi era.