Families in pickup trucks stacked with mattresses and jugs of water fled Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte Tuesday ahead of an expected new push by revolutionary forces to seize the city, as the anti-Gadhafi forces claimed progress in the battle for a city in the remote southern desert.
A commander of new government's forces said late Tuesday they were in control of most of the Gadhafi desert stronghold of Sabha after a day of fighting. The commander, Bashir Ahwaz, said most of the tribesmen loyal to Gadhafi fled the city instead of putting up a fight, but three of his men and 19 pro-Gadhafi tribesmen were killed.
He said it would take another week for his forces to take control of all of Libya's southern desert and its borders with Algeria and Niger. Several groups of officials from Gadhafi's regime, as well as one of the outsted dictator's sons, have fled to Niger.
Earlier, residents fleeing Sirte said they had been living under a state of siege with Gadhafi's forces preventing them from leaving, while living conditions deteriorated and the city came under constant rocket fire and NATO bombardment.
"I tried to leave earlier with my family, but Gadhafi's forces wouldn't let me," said Abdullah Mohammed, a 34-year-old computer engineer traveling with his wife, two daughters and son. "We managed to run away at dawn by taking back roads out of the city."
Youssef Ramadan, 35, said there has been no power since Aug. 20, a day before revolutionary forces swept into the capital Tripoli and forced Gadhafi into hiding.
"There's no fuel and food is running low," he said. "A lot of civilians are stuck in their houses because of the fighting." Ramadan, who was taking his wife, 2-year-old daughter, 7-year-old son, brother and mother out of the city of about 100,000 people, said regime forces were using houses, schools and hospitals to store ammunition.
Tripoli fell to Gadhafi opponents in late August after a six-month civil war with NATO airstrikes aiding the rebels _ marking the collapse of Gadhafi's nearly 42-year rule.
Gadhafi ridiculed the claims from his hiding place.
"What is happening in Libya is a charade gaining its legitimacy through airstrikes that will not last forever," he said in the statement broadcast on the Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become his mouthpiece. "It's hard to bring down this regime because it represents millions of Libyans."
The transitional Libyan government has insisted it will press forward with efforts to rebuild the government despite the continued fighting. But Gadhafi's continued defiance has raised fears the country could face a protracted insurgency such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama warned dark days lie ahead for the Libyan people as they try to reshape their country, promising the world will stand with them and announcing that the U.S. ambassador was heading back to Tripoli to lead a reopened American embassy there.
"After decades of iron rule by one man, it will take time to build the institutions needed for a democratic Libya. I'm sure there will be days of frustration," the president said at a high level United Nations meeting.
Obama said the NATO-led bombing campaign in Libya will continue as long as civilians are threatened. He urged Gadhafi loyalists to lay down their arms and join the new Libya, declaring, "the old regime is over." NATO has launched over 8,700 strike sorties on Libya since late March.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said 12 more soldiers have been sent to Tripoli to join four U.S. troops already there. He said their mission was to aid the State Department, and no more would be sent.
Revolutionary fighters tried to push into Sirte, 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast, over the weekend but were driven back by fierce rocket and gunfire. They pulled back to regroup, although the two sides exchange fire daily.
About 30 families were lined up to get fuel from a tanker parked about 12 miles outside Sirte with pickup trucks and cars packed with mattresses, water, crates of onions and suitcases in the back.
Abdul-Salam el-Ebadi, 44-year-old math teacher who lives on the outskirts of Sirte, said the anti-Gadhafi forces were encouraging them to leave because they're in the range of weapons from both sides.
"We hear a lot of fighting, but we don't know where it is because we have to hide in our houses," he said. He was leaving with his elderly father in the passenger seat as part of a 10-car convoy of 50 to 60 people.
Revolutionary forces on the western outskirts of the city said they were encouraging residents to leave so they could move in with heavy weapons coming in from Misrata.
"Our guys are going inside the city to give the families what they need, water and fuel so they can leave," field commander Mohammed Mebeggan said as NATO warplanes flew overhead. "We are giving them the opportunity to leave. Today is the last day."
Hesham Samedi, a doctor at a field hospital in a mosque on Sirte's western outskirts, said four people were killed and seven wounded on Tuesday, most hit by shrapnel.
Fighters in Misrata said their plans to root out pro-regime forces in Sirte was focused Tuesday on cutting off military weapons to Gadhafi loyalists coming from the south. The Misrata Military Council said they secured a road to Weddan, about 280 kilometers (175 miles) south of Sirte.
In Bani Walid, revolutionary commanders tried to reorganize their forces after three days of chaotic fighting, with frustration high over weeks of standoff. Official forces withdrew to regroup after a fierce battle, and untrained volunteers have been launching sporadic assaults and drawing retaliatory fire from Gadhafi's forces.
On Tuesday at a feed factory being used as a checkpoint outside Bani Walid, men passed a list around to take down the names and information of the volunteers in a bid to organize them into official brigades. One army official shouted at volunteers to stop randomly shooting for target practice and ordered them to introduce themselves to fighters from the national army.
"These young boys have more than the necessary enthusiasm, but after seeing that many of them are dying needlessly they realize it is the time to organize," said al-Toumi.
Associated Press writers Hadeel al-Shalchi in Wadi Dinar, and Aya Batrawy and Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.