SIRTE, Libya – Libyan fighters on Thursday overran the remaining positions of Muammar Qaddafi loyalists in his hometown of Sirte, ending the last major resistance by former regime supporters still holding out two months after the fall of the capital Tripoli.
Reporters at the scene watched as the final assault began around 8 a.m. and ended about 90 minutes later. Just before the assault, about five carloads of loyalists tried to flee the enclave down the coastal highway but were met by gunfire from the revolutionaries, who killed at least 20 of them.
"Our forces control the last neighborhood in Sirte," Hassan Draoua, a member of Libya's interim National Transitional Council, told The Associated Press in Tripoli after Sirte's fall. "The city has been liberated."
After the battle, revolutionaries began searching homes and buildings looking for any Qaddafi fighters who may be hiding there. At least 16 pro-Qaddafi fighters were captured, along with multiple cases of ammunition and trucks loaded with weapons. Reporters saw revolutionaries beating captured Qaddafi men in the back of trucks and officers intervening to stop them.
Celebratory gunfire echoed through Sirte, which fell into the hands of revolutionaries almost two full months after they overrun Tripoli and many other parts of the oil-rich North African nation.
Despite the fall of Tripoli on Aug, 21, Qaddafi loyalists mounted fierce resistance in several areas, including Sirte, preventing Libya's new leaders from declaring full victory in the eight-month civil war.
Earlier this week, revolutionary fighters gained control of one stronghold, Bani Walid, and by Tuesday said they had squeezed Qaddafi's forces in Sirte into a residential area of about 700 square meters but were still coming under heavy fire from surrounding buildings.
Deputy defense minister Fawzi Abu Katif on Wednesday told the AP that authorities still believe Qaddafi's son Muatassim is among the ex-regime figures holed up in the diminishing area in Sirte. He was not seen on the ground after the final battle on Thursday.
In an illustration of how difficult and slow the fighting for Sirte was, it took the anti-Qaddafi fighters, who also faced disorganization in their own ranks, two days to capture a single residential building.
It is unclear whether Qaddafi loyalists who have escaped might continue the fight and attempt to organize an insurgency using the vast amount of weapons Qaddafi was believed to have stored in hideouts in the remote southern desert.
Unlike Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi had no well-organized political party that could form the basis of an insurgent leadership. However, regional and ethnic differences have already appeared among the ranks of the revolutionaries, possibly laying the foundation for civil strife.
Qaddafi, who is in hiding, has issued several audio recordings trying to rally supporters. Libyan officials have said they believe he's hiding somewhere in the vast southwestern desert near the borders with Niger and Algeria.