NATO expressed surprise Tuesday at the determined resistance by forces defending Moammar Gadhafi's hometown as heavy fighting persisted more than two months after the fall of the capital, Tripoli.
The comments by Col. Roland Lavoie appeared aimed at pressuring the former strongman's troops to lay down their weapons and engage in talks with one-time rebels who now rule the country, thanks largely to NATO firepower.
Instead, in places such as Sirte, Gadhafi loyalists are still fighting, even though they can no longer be resupplied after the new government's units won control of key parts of the town's center, Lavoie said.
"So from that perspective, it just does not make sense to see what these few remaining forces are doing," he said. "This could certainly be qualified as surprising both from military and political point of view."
Explosions and gunfire echoed through residential neighborhoods in Sirte Tuesday as revolutionary forces said they had the enemy pinned in a small area and had captured more than 20 members of the fugitive leader's tribe trying to escape.
Anti-Gadhafi fighters launched a major offensive on Friday in a bid to finally rout the remnants of the old regime. Libya's interim leadership has said it can declare liberation only after Sirte falls.
"The good news today is that the Gadhafi family is starting to flee Sirte," Col. Kamel el-Magrabi said, speaking from the front line where his unit of fighters from Benghazi was fighting.
Pro-Gadhafi forces fought back with snipers and mortar and machine-gun fire from buildings along the roadside. Several buildings were on fire near the front line.
Dozens of vehicles, meanwhile, lined up at a checkpoint opposite the gutted and destroyed Ougadougou Convention Center, which had been a Gadhafi base until it was overrun by revolutionary forces. Fighters checked documents and thoroughly searched vehicles for weapons and Gadhafi loyalists.
Libya's new leaders say they had given civilians time to flee but many said they hadn't left earlier because of a lack of transportation or fuel for their vehicles.
"I couldn't fix my car to get out, as you can see, so that's what happened to us," Hussein Zaid said, gesturing toward his dilapidated Toyota sedan.
Critics of NATO's campaign have warned of the danger of protracted armed resistance against the new governing authority led by the National Transitional Council. The NTC has refused repeated attempts by the African Union and others to mediate between the warring parties.
NATO has said it would end its seven-month-long bombing campaign once it is clear pro-Gadhafi remnants no longer present a significant threat. But for the time being it is keeping up airstrikes, mainly against targets in the coastal city of Sirte and the desert enclave of Bani Walid, where pro-Gadhafi forces remain in control.
The alliance has been criticized for allegedly misusing a U.N. resolution in March authorizing the use of force to protect civilians in Libya to justify months of airstrikes aimed at overthrowing Gadhafi's regime. NATO warplanes have flown about 9,500 strike sorties during that period.
After a long stalemate, the air raids paved the way for the advance of opposition forces and the capture of Tripoli and other major population centers in the past two months. Opposition forces are now moving on Bani Walid, Lavoie said.
"We have no evidence of significant pro-Gadhafi presence or activity in the rest of the country," he said.
Lavoie also said NATO has no information about the thousands of portable surface-to-air missiles that are reportedly missing in Libya.
Last week, the German news magazine Der Spiegel said the alliance has lost track of at least 10,000 surface-to-air missiles from Libyan military depots. These include the small SAM-7 shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missiles which the U.S. and other Western nations fear could be used by terrorists to target civilian airliners.
Lavoie said that since NATO did not have forces on the ground, it's up to Libya's new authorities to account for such munitions.
Lekic was reporting from Brussels. Associated Press writer Kim Gamel also contributed to this report.
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