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Libya's opposition close in on symbolic city of Sirte

For the rebels of Libya, the road to the city of Sirte was proving to be a violent and perilous journey.

The two jets swooped low and fast, the missiles exploding nearby and forcing those on the road to dive for cover.

Artillery shells and mortar rounds landed in salvoes as dark plumes of smoke rose from burning buildings in the background.

Sirte has a highly symbolic as well as strategic significance in this brutal conflict. It is the birthplace of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, where members of his clan had vowed to fight to the bitter end. The fall of this loyalist stronghold would be seen as a body blow to the regime and a huge boost to the morale of the revolution, while also opening up the way to the capital, Tripoli. After repulsing the regime's attempt to recapture Brega, a major petrochemicals centre, the emboldened opposition militia had seized the oil port of Ras Lanuf and then, within a day, had walked into Bin Jawad, a garrison town, with Gaddafi's troops seemingly retreating in disarray and defeat.

Sirte was the next stop and with it the chance to relieve Misrata and Zawiya, where protesters are being pounded by the regime.

There were congratulations from the capital of ‘Free Libya’, Benghazi, to the militant fighters, the Shabaab, while leaders of a recently set-up provisional administration talked of declaring themselves as the new government of the country.

Messages sent to the Gaddafi loyalists in Sirte warned that their nemesis was now only a hundred miles away and offering reconciliation in return for a peaceful handover of the city.

But yesterday, the regime struck back. Rebels claimed to have repelled attacks in the western towns of Zawiya and Misrata.

And in the east, Gaddafi forces launched one of the fiercest, sustained bombardments of the campaign with tanks, rockets, mortars, rifles and anti-aircraft artillery used as ground weapons while fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships carried out sorties above.

“They are killing, killing us, we need help,” shouted Ibrahim Waleed, from the back of a flatbed truck streaming back from Bin Jawad. “Gaddafi is cutting us to pieces, we cannot hit back.”

The 23-year-old teacher was one of many volunteers, almost all untrained, who had taken up arms for the cause. They had revelled in the easy victories of the last week, but were now tasting real fear.

Behind them, in Bin Jawad, 300 Shabaab fighters were cornered. Rebel fighters desperately urged their commanders to mount another counter-attack to save their comrades. Up to another 50 died as they fought surrounded by regime troops, they said.

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