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Libyan rebels step up Sirte siege

Libya's revolutionary fighters have stepped up a siege of Muammar Gaddafi's home town, hoping to wear down loyalist forces a day after an offensive failed to dislodge die-hard loyalists of the fugitive leader.

Anti-Gaddafi fighters set up new checkpoints and posted snipers in strategic areas on the outskirts of Sirte. But they said they were not planning another assault immediately after facing fierce resistance yesterday that left seven of their comrades dead and more than 150 wounded.

"It's unlikely we'll attack today unless we are attacked," said Aiman Majub, who helps co-ordinate revolutionary forces. "The idea is to catch our breath and regroup so we can be more strategic instead of blasting our way in."

Saturday's battle for down town Sirte was the first significant push in a week and included close-range gunfights with loyalists hiding in buildings and throwing hand grenades from windows. The fighters pushed east along the city's main thoroughfare into its urban centre, overrunning a TV station as Nato warplanes supporting anti-Gaddafi forces roared overhead.

Osama Nuttawa al-Swehli, a revolutionary logistics officer, said the goal today was to squeeze the city and prevent any former regime figures believed to be holed up inside from escaping. Al-Swehli said he has heard Gaddafi's son Muatassim communicating by radio with loyalist forces inside Sirte.

"We have to make sure that no supplies get in and that none of their assets escape," he said.

"The priority today is to hold our positions while pounding their targets," he said, adding that they needed to take out loyalist rocket launchers before making another push to take the city.

He said that seven men were killed and 152 wounded, 17 seriously, in yesterday's fighting. Four of those injured lost limbs and four others had serious head wounds, he said.

Sirte, 400km south-east of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast, is the Libyan city most associated with Gaddafi and one of three strongholds that have refused to surrender more than a month after revolutionary forces seized Tripoli and much of the rest of the North African nation.

Revolutionary forces have been working to help civilians trying to flee the city amid rapidly deteriorating living conditions. More than a dozen families drove out toward the west this morning, riding in battered cars with mattresses and suitcases strapped to their roofs.

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