TRIPOLI, Libya – Libyan fighters have completely surrounded Muammar Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte and are engaged in heavy clashes with his loyalists on the city's streets, a revolutionary commander said Saturday.
Last week, the Libyan defense ministry announced that Sirte's port, airport and military base were all under the revolutionary forces' control.
On Saturday, commander Musatafa al-Rubaie told The Associated Press that even though the fighters have surrounded Sirte from all sides, a path out has been left for civilians who still want to leave the coastal city. After weeks of fighting Qaddafi's loyalists inside Sirte, the fighters now hold positions about 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the city center, he said.
Al-Rubaie said fighters from the east seized control of Sirte's first residential district and a hotel where Qaddafi's snipers were based.
"There is heavy fighting going on in the streets of Sirte right now," he said. "The enemy is besieged from the south, east and west but it's still in possession of highly sophisticated weapons and a large amount of ammunition."
Al-Rubaie said Qaddafi forces were also in control of strategic positions inside the city, including high-rise buildings where snipers are positioned, making the revolutionary forces' advance slow and hard.
"The plan is that the eastern and western forces will meet in the middle of Sirte," al-Rubaie said. "When we reach this point, we will celebrate the liberation of Sirte."
On Saturday, residents continued to leave the embattled coastal city. A doctor at a frontline hospital said a family of four from Sirte was killed while driving out from the Qaddafi holdout toward the revolutionaries positions. It was unclear who killed them.
Dr. Nuri Naari said the bodies of two children and their parents were brought to his makeshift hospital early Saturday morning, adding they had died from machine-gun fire.
Hundreds of cars with Sirte residents formed long lines at Libyan forces' checkpoints leading out of the city, calmly waiting to be checked by the fighters as explosions echoed in the distance.
Meanwhile, fighters on the western approaches to the city fired rockets and tank fire at loyalists' positions, while NATO aircraft were heard circling overhead.
Many of those fleeing Sirte said conditions in the city continue to deteriorate, with food in short supply, and no water or electricity.
"We couldn't leave our homes because of the shelling, we had to leave the city," said Ahmed Hussein as his wife, mother-in-law and two children watched the fighters search their car.
Cars, buses and trucks loaded with families and heaped with household goods lined up at the first checkpoint about half a mile (kilometer) from the front-lines. Volunteers gave the families food and water while fighters checked documents and cars.
A small contingent of Doctors Without Borders attempted to enter Sirte on Saturday to deliver medical supplies, but turned back because of heavy shelling and no guarantees that the Qaddafi loyalist would hold their fire.
In between the bouts of shooting, Libyan fighters prayed.