- Sirte is "heavily contested," a NATO colonel says
- Conditions at the Sirte hospital are "chaotic," the ICRC says
- Tripoli's International Airport is officially reopened
Forces loyal to the new government are pressing ahead in Sirte, but the war-weary Libyan city "is now heavily contested," a NATO spokesman said Tuesday.
"NTC forces have made a significant advance, reaching the core of the city," Col. Roland Lavoie, spokesman for NATO's Operation Unified Protector, told reporters, referring to the new leaders of the country, the National Transitional Council.
"Now that Gadhafi forces have been dislodged from the university, the conference center and the main hospital, they have lost key positions and cannot effectively control the city or be reinforced or resupplied," Lavoie said at a press briefing Tuesday. "Most importantly, humanitarian aid can now reach core city areas, including the hospital. And the population can now more easily escape the few remaining contested areas."
Sirte, former leader Moammar Gadhafi's hometown, and Bani Walid have been two remaining pockets with significant pro-Gadhafi sentiment, Lavoie said.
He said there's no "evidence of significant pro-Gadhafi presence or activity" in the rest of Libya. Sirte is east of the capital, Tripoli, on the Mediterranean coast and Bani Walid is southeast of the capital.
A field commander of the fighters battling the loyalists said Sunday they had "reached the final stages of the fight" to take Sirte. But the pro-Gadhafi fighters have dug in and put up stiff resistance in what is the last city with a seaport under Gadhafi control.
Fighting has raged for days in Sirte, terrifying patients and staffers in Sirte's embattled hospital and spurring medics to evacuate patients to safer areas.
Dibeh Fakhr, an International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman, told CNN the conditions at the Sirte hospital are "chaotic and really bad."
Lavoie said NATO is being "extremely careful" because of the "close-quarter, fierce fighting in parts of Sirte."
"There are limitations to what NATO aircraft can do from high altitude to protect civilians in an uncertain, cluttered urban-combat environment where civilians still reside," he said.
Lavoie said the situation in Bani Walid had been static until last weekend, when forces loyal to the National Transitional Council edged toward the town's outskirts.
He said a "significant proportion of the population has already left" the town. A few air strikes were conducted last week "to remove weapons, vehicles and military command or staging facilities."
Asked about a news report saying NATO was surprised by the tenacious pro-Gadhafi resistance, Lavoie said, "The posture of pro-Gadhafi forces at this stage just does not make sense.
"It is clear that they could not change or influence the outcome of this conflict, and they have refused opportunities to be part of a political solution, and basically they have opted to choose to inflict pain to the rest of the population in Libya. So from that perspective it just does not make sense to see what these few remaining forces are doing, and this could certainly be qualified as surprising, both from a military and a from political point of view."
He also said pro-Gadhafi forces "have no capability whatsoever to mobilize significant forces and to command-and-control these forces."
"In Sirte," Lavoie said, "Gadhafi forces had some command-and-control capabilities there for some time. We do believe that this ability is now lost. So the only remaining area where they exercise some command-and-control at the tactical level is within Bani Walid. "
In a sign of stability in the rest of the country, Tripoli International Airport has been officially reopened, Minister of Transport and Communication Anwar El Feituri announced on Tuesday.
"Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the chairman of the NTC, officially opened the airport last night and flights are expected to resume soon," El Feituri told reporters.
The NTC is facing a number of challenges in the aviation sector. The Gadhafi regime destroyed most of the commercial airplanes before the fall of Tripoli.
"Our fighters protected the airport but five of the airplanes need major repair. Our main priority is to transport the injured from our freedom fighters to Tunisia, Jordan, and other parts of the world, " El Feituri said.
U.N. flights and several airlines, including Turkish Airlines, have been flying out of Metiga military airport in Tripoli in recent weeks.
Air France, Austrian Airlines and Royal Jordanian Airlines are expected to start flying through Tripoli International soon, El Feituri said.