Libyan forces capture Sirte airport

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Forces of Libya's interim government have captured the airport in Muammar Gadafy's hometown of Sirte, one of two main remaining bastions of support for the deposed leader, journalists at the scene said.

Fighters from the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) have launched two full-on assaults on Sirte in the past week with support from Nato warplanes, but have been held at bay by sniper and artillery fire from Gadafy loyalists in the city.

The NTC has asked the United Nations for fuel for ambulances to evacuate wounded from the besieged city of Sirte, a UN source in Libya said.

Meanwhile desperate civilians were fleeing the coastal city before dawn when pro-Gadafy forces start guarding checkpoints, the source said.

The United Nations is sending trucks of clean drinking water for the increasing flow of civilians crammed into vehicles on the road from Sirte, heading either towards Benghazi in the west or Misrata in the east, he said.

But fighting around the city and continuing insecurity around the Bani Walid area, the other final loyalist hold-out, are preventing the world body from deploying aid workers inside them, he said.

"There are two places we'd really like access to, Sirte and Ben Walid because of concern on the impact of conflict on the civilian population," the UN source in Tripoli said.

The United Nations has stocks of food and water in both Benghazi and Misrata for the newly displaced but many are taken by villagers and local councils on the way, he said.

"We know battles are raging and we would like access to Sirte but nobody has been able to enter the city," the UN source said.

"We've heard there are a lot of casualties and wounded are being sent towards Misrata.

"We've received a request for fuel for ambulances from the NTC to move wounded people from the frontlines westward. That gives an indication that maybe logistics are not working as effectively as they could and we need to step in with support," he added.

UN officials do not have any direct contact with pro-Gadafy forces holed up in Sirte, where both sides accuse the other of cutting off water and electricity, he said.

"We had reports two days ago that up to 250 vehicles per day are leaving westward, early in the morning before checkpoints are properly manned by pro-Gadafy forces."

Thousands of civilians are streaming out of the besieged town, where a humanitarian disaster looms amid rising casualties and shrinking supplies of water, electricity and food, major aid agencies said yesterday.

"We are focusing primarily on the displaced because our capacity is not very strong. The main challenge is to find where they are, what the numbers are and what their needs are," the UN source said.

Last week the UN had reports that up to 35,000 people had fled Bani Walid, about half the population, reaching Tnine and Shmeikh, he said.

"We could not reach those two places, they were beyond the perimeter of our security clearance," he said, adding that they were insecure areas but not under the control of pro-Gadafy forces.

Reuters

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