SIRTE, Libya (AP) Ã¢â‚¬â€ Hundreds of revolutionary fighters pushed into Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown Saturday in the first significant assault in about a week as Libya’s new rulers try to rout remaining loyalists of the fugitive leader. At the same time, the political leadership sought to boost its authority, promising to announce an interim government.
Explosions rocked the city of Sirte and smoke rose into the sky as Gadhafi’s forces fired mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades at the fighters. Ambulances sped from the direction of the front line, and a doctor said at least one fighter was killed and 25 others wounded in the battle.
The two sides have been locked in a standoff since former rebels tried to advance on the city a week ago but were repelled by fierce resistance. More than a months since the then-rebels swept into Tripoli and pushed Gadhafi out of power, they are still struggling to overrun his remaining strongholds in the center of the country and the south.
In the capital, Tripoli, a series of explosions went off at a military storage warehouse near the harbor Saturday afternoon and heavy black smoke poured out of the facility. A revolutionary command spokesman, Abdel-Rahman Busin, said it was an accident caused by either an electrical problem or the improper storage of ammunition. He said no injuries were reported.
Underscoring the paranoia among Libyans with Gadhafi still on the loose, revolutionary fighters rushed to the site and many speculated it could have been an attack by loyalists who had sneaked back into Tripoli.
Members of the National Transitional Council, which was the leadership of the rebellion, are now Libya’s formal rulers, though they are still working to establish their authority. On Saturday, the council’s chief, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, said it will announce a new interim government in the coming week.
The step would presumably give their rule a more formal structure as they move toward holding elections, and it could be an opportunity to expand the council’s base. The NTC failed to seat a new Cabinet last week amid disagreements over which cities should be represented and other issues. On Saturday, Abdul-Jalil underlined that Libyans must be united to form a new government.
He spoke to reporters after returning from New York where he and the NTC’s prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, represented Libya at the first post-Gadhafi U.N. General Assembly.
In Sirte, revolutionary fighters occupied a key roundabout called Zafaran west of the downtown area in the Mediterranean coastal city, 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. They then advanced to a broadcasting station on a major boulevard. Many were wounded by hand grenades and snipers firing from tall buildings, according to witnesses returning from the front lines.
Moftah Mohammed, a 28-year-old fighter who brought four of his wounded friends to a field hospital on the western edge of the city, described heavy gunfire from houses and fierce street battles.
He said his friends were wounded by snipers who shot them as they drove forward to fire a rocket-propelled grenade, then attackers threw hand grenades at two other revolutionary fighters who went to pull the wounded from the car.
Revolutionary fighters tried to push into the city last weekend but were driven back by fierce rocket barrages and gunfire, with at least 25 former rebels killed and dozens wounded. They pulled back to regroup and let civilians leave the area, although the two sides exchanged fire daily.
More than 1,300 families have left the city in the past week, fighters said. A few dozen waiting at a checkpoint outside the city on Saturday described rapidly deteriorating conditions, with entire families hiding in basements and children suffering from diarrhea because clean water is scarce.
The former rebels had said they would wait until civilians could escape, but a brigade commander, Mohammed al-Sugatri, said the revolutionaries decided to advance because several families living in Sirte who are originally from the nearby anti-Gadhafi city of Misrata were in danger.
“There are lots of people from Misrata who are stuck in the city living in basements. They have no food or water and many of their children are sick so we had no choice but to attack,” he said.
A field outside the city’s western side was crowded with trucks and ambulances filled with wounded men.
Munther Kareyem, a doctor at the field hospital, said one dead fighter and more than 25 wounded had been brought in with shrapnel wounds. One man lost a leg.
Men chanted “There is no God but Allah” as the slain fighter was carried out, covered by a bloodstained white sheet.
Associated Press writers Hadeel al-Shalchi and Kim Gamel in Tripoli contributed to this report.