Hundreds of Civilians Flee: The Struggle Over a Qaddafi Stronghold

Surt, Libya – During lulls between mortar and rocket barrages, hundreds of civilians fled this coastal city on Monday after five days of fierce clashes between fighters loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and former rebel fighters, which are settling into a stalemate and raising fears of another bloody siege in the still unresolved Libyan conflict.

Many of the fleeing residents said they were persuaded to leave by the anti-Qaddafi forces and told they would be able to return to their homes within days. They said that there was no water or electricity in the city and that food supplies were dwindling. Stray bullets had smashed their windows, they said, and rockets had landed on their houses.

One man fleeing with his family, who declined to give his name because his relatives were still in Surt, said the hospitals were out of oxygen, the nurses had fled and the city was full of snipers.

“We’ve been hiding in our house all this time,” he said.

Almost a month after the fall of Tripoli, the capital, the former rebels have found themselves unable to close out their war with Colonel Qaddafi’s loyalists and unify the country.

Last week, as attempts at negotiations with the holdouts faltered, the rebels tried to advance on Surt and Bani Walid, another Qaddafi stronghold southeast of Tripoli. The colonel’s loyalists repelled those advances with surprising ferocity and ease, raising questions about the resolve of the anti-Qaddafi fighters in the face of apparently committed foes.

Even so, the fighters under the banner of the new transitional government have recorded a few gains. In southern Libya on Monday, they said they had captured an airfield outside Sabha, another base of Colonel Qaddafi’s support. The rebels also captured a hospital and a convention center in the city, according to a spokesman for the local Sabha council based in Benghazi, The Associated Press reported.

The scene on the outskirts of Surt recalled an earlier period in the Libyan conflict, in March, when the rebels were held at bay by loyalist artillery fire outside the eastern city of Ajdabiya. NATO warplanes eventually bombed the government positions, allowing the rebels to advance.

The warplanes could be heard overhead on Monday, but they were of no help to the anti-Qaddafi fighters, who retreated several times as rockets fell near their positions in the west of the city. Although they have the city surrounded, the former rebels have been unable to advance into the city center, which they say is guarded by loyalist snipers and mortar teams who have found their positions with precision.

Surt, Colonel Qaddafi’s birthplace, has been tightly controlled by his troops since the February uprising.

The stream of cars that filed out of Surt on Monday morning suggested that talk of negotiations was over, as the anti-Qaddafi forces seemed to be preparing for another violent assault. Some of the refugees said that many of the town’s residents still supported Colonel Qaddafi, perhaps as much as a quarter of the population, including some who were volunteering to fight.

Many of the families who fled were Palestinian, from a neighborhood around the Gaza Mosque. They included Mohamed Dahlan, 72, who said he had left with his wife, their four children and just a bit of food. He said that the anti-Qaddafi fighters had gone door to door, checking for guns and telling residents to leave, with the promise that they could return soon.

They had treated his family well, he said, providing them with fuel for the journey. “We don’t fear them,” he said. “They fear God.”

Other families were much less content, including nine families who were unable to leave Surt. The families, all related, are originally from Tawergha, a town whose residents were accused of participating in the Qaddafi forces’ siege of neighboring Misurata in April and May.

On Monday, the families were at a mosque in Surt, within range of the shelling. One man in the group said they could not leave because they did not have cars, but his relatives suggested that there were other reasons, though they declined to elaborate. Several armed fighters from Misurata argued with the refugees, calling them traitors. It was not clear whether the families were being guarded or detained.

This article, “Hundreds of Civilians Flee the Struggle Over a Qaddafi Stronghold,” originally appeared at The New York Times.