SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi’s spokesman told Reuters on Saturday that NATO air strikes on the ousted leader’s home city of Sirte overnight had hit a residential building and a hotel, killing 354 people.
Fighters loyal to the interim government were fighting street to street, slowly advancing into the city, but have been unable to dislodged Gaddafi loyalists defending it, Reuters journalists embedded with the interim government force said.
The city echoed with the sound of heavy shelling and gunfire. National Transitional Council interim government fighters said they had seen NATO warplanes above the city on Friday but did not know if they had bombed.
“NATO attacked the city of Sirte last night with more than 30 rockets directed at the city’s main hotel and the Tamin building, which consists of more than 90 residential flats,” Gaddafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said in a call from a satellite phone to the Reuters office in Tunis.
“The result is more than 354 dead and 89 still missing and almost 700 injured in one night,” he added. The Tamin building is a landmark building in the centre of Sirte, named after the Tamin insurance company.
Reuters was unable to verify Ibrahim’s account of the incident. Gaddafi-held areas have been cut off from communication since the fall of Tripoli.
“How can anyone justify NATO’s murderous acts in support of an armed group against whole cites and tribes in Libya?” Ibrahim said, adding there was no foreign media in the centre of Sirte.
NATO spokesman Colonel Roland Levoie said: “We are aware of these allegations. It is not the first time such allegations have been made. Most often, they are revealed to be unfounded or inconclusive.”
GADDAFI “LEADING STRUGGLE”
Fighters pushing into the besieged town appeared to be making slow but steady progress.
Ibrahim said Gaddafi was personally directing loyalist fighters who are fending off provisional government forces at his remaining strongholds. Those include Sirte on the coast, Bani Walid southeast of Tripoli and Sabha in the deep Sahara.
“He is leading all aspects of this struggle. He is talking to the people, he is lecturing, he is discussing, he is looking after all matters of the resistance,” he said. “He is in Libya...he is very confident, his morale is high and he believes we will win this fight.”
Ibrahim said that pro-Gaddafi forces had been stockpiling weapons and planning for a drawn-out war.
“We will be able to continue this fight and we have enough arms for months and months to come,” he said.
Ibrahim would not comment on Gaddafi’s precise location but said he himself was now near Sirte and had been travelling between it and other towns still loyal to Gaddafi. Reuters was not able to confirm his location independently.
“In the last 17 days more than 2,000 residents of the city of Sirte were killed in NATO air strikes,” Ibrahim said.
NATO says its air strikes in Libya since March have not killed large numbers of civilians.
(Additional reporting and wrting by Barry Malone in Tunis; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Peter Graff)