By Rania El Gamal
SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Many residents of Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi's birth-place, blame Libya's new rulers and their Western allies for the death and destruction unleashed on their city by weeks of fighting.
Most are reluctant to talk openly about their allegiances, for fear they will be branded as members of a pro-Gaddafi fifth column. Yet their anger and bitterness is clear.
"This country has been built around one man. If he is over, Libya will be over," said a resident who gave his name as al-Fatouri, standing outside his home on the outskirts of Sirte.
"Gaddafi is like a picture frame. When part of the frame is hit, the whole picture will be destroyed, Libya will be destroyed," he said.
Sirte is the sternest test yet of the ability of the interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), to win over Gaddafi's tribe and prevent it from mounting an Iraq-style insurgency that would destabilize Libya and the region.
While most cities captured by NTC forces have rejoiced, or at least given that impression, Sirte is different because it is home to members of Gaddafi's tribe who genuinely back him.
"Let them look for Muammar, but do not kill 50,000 people to change the regime," said Fatouri. "It is not worth it that thousands die in Sirte for Muammar. This is what saddens us."
Fatouri said he, like thousands of other people from this city on the Mediterranean coast, had fled his home days ago because of the fighting. He decided later to come back.
"We refuse to leave, we don't want to suffer... We would rather die here than leave our houses and suffer," he said.
As he spoke, the sound of shelling and heavy machine guns reverberated around him and a crowd of locals gathered.
"They (NTC forces) used to start their day with bombing us, and finish it with bombing us... The kids used to hear the shelling like music," said another resident standing nearby.
FEAR OF SLAUGHTER
NTC forces say they are mounting a final push to seize Sirte after pausing to let civilians leave. They say the only people left are mercenaries, die-hard fighters and, they believe, one of Gaddafi's sons, Mu'atassem, a military commander.
NTC fighters, whose offensive is backed by NATO air strikes, say they are treating fleeing residents well, giving them food and water, and detaining only suspected Gaddafi fighters.
Several residents said that was not the true picture.
"There are no Gaddafi brigades, they are volunteers inside," said a 23-year-old who gave his name only as Bassem. He fled Sirte two days ago with his uncle, but left his parents behind.
"They didn't want to leave," he said. "Some people are scared of being slaughtered by the rebels, and some people do not want to leave their house."
Many residents fear NTC forces will exact revenge on Sirte because of its links with Gaddafi, who developed it from a fishing village to a city of 100,000 that hosted state events.
Sirte, one of Gaddafi's last bastions in Libya since the fall of Tripoli on August 23, sits on the main coastal highway between the capital and the eastern city of Benghazi.
Some of the fighters trying to capture Sirte are from Misrata, a city where thousands of people were killed by Gaddafi's forces and where hatred of his rule runs high.
"The rebels from Misrata say they will destroy Sirte because Misrata was destroyed," said Ali, another fleeing resident.
"NATO has brought destruction, and the revolution has brought destruction," he said.
As he spoke, bystanders began shouting at him that such talk would just spread "chaos and havoc." Ali retorted that they were not telling the truth and walked away in dismay.
Another angry resident shared Ali's view.
"What did America and NATO bring to us? Did they bring apricots?" he demanded. "No, they brought us the shelling and the strikes. They terrorized our kids."
(Editing by Christian Lowe and Alistair Lyon)