SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - People wounded in fighting in Libya’s besieged city of Sirte are dying on the operating table because fuel for the hospital generator has run out, medical workers fleeing the city said on Sunday.
The birthplace of deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is one of two towns still holding out against the country’s new rulers. The fighting has entered its third week and civilians are caught up in a worsening humanitarian crisis.
The interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), declared a two-day truce to allow civilians to escape, but people emerging from the city said they knew nothing of the ceasefire, and that the shooting had not stopped.
“Doctors start operating, then the power goes. They have a few litres of fuel for the generators, then the lights go out when they operate,” said a man who gave his name as Al-Sadiq, who said he ran the dialysis unit at Sirte’s main hospital.
“I saw a child of 14 die on the operating table because the power went out during the operation,” he told Reuters on the western outskirts of the city.
Aid workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who brought medical supplies into Sirte on Saturday could not reach the hospital because of shooting.
That hospital has now become the focus of concerns about the humanitarian crisis in the city.
“It’s a catastrophe. Patients are dying every day for need of oxygen,” said Mohammed Shnaq, a biochemist at the hospital who fled early on Sunday during a lull in the shooting.
He said private pharmacies in Sirte had handed over their supplies to the hospital after its own stocks ran out a week ago, but these were now running out too.
The ICRC said that it planned to go back into Sirte and hoped to reach the hospital, security permitting.
“We want to deliver oxygen, which is lacking at the hospital,” ICRC spokesman Marcal Izard told Reuters in Geneva.
“But it has to be done carefully, oxygen is very delicate. A stray bullet would be a disaster.”
Colonel Hamed Al-Hasi, commander of the anti-Gaddafi Qatar brigade east of Sirte, said the truce had expired on Sunday, but a full assault was still out of the question.
“There are still more than 15,000 persons inside. We cannot sacrifice them,” he said.
He said NTC forces would for now instead be targeting the district of Bouhadi, just to the south of Sirte. He said a captured Gaddafi loyalist had told them that Mo’atassem, one of the deposed Libyan leader’s sons and his former national security adviser, was in the district.
“We’ve been concentrating since last night on Bouhadi,” he said. “If we catch Mo’atassem, things will calm down.”
NATO warplanes were more in evidence than in previous days, with aircraft flying unusually low over the city. In one 10-minute period there was a steady rumble from bombs dropping on an area south of the city, a Reuters reporter said.
Libyans ended Gaddafi’s 42-year rule in August when rebel fighters stormed the capital. Gaddafi and several of his sons are still at large, and his supporters hold Sirte and the town of Bani Walid, south of Tripoli.
Gaddafi’s supporters are too weak to regain power, but their resistance is frustrating the new rulers’ efforts to start building the post-Gaddafi Libya.
While it needs to stamp out the last resistance swiftly, the NTC does not want to use indiscriminate shelling, which could hurt its standing and make it even harder to govern Libya’s fractious tribes and regions.
Gaddafi loyalists and some civilians have blamed NATO air strikes and shelling by anti-Gaddafi forces for the deaths of civilians in Sirte.
Both NATO and the NTC deny that and say it is the Gaddafi loyalists who are endangering civilians by using them as human shields.
Khalid Ahmed, who fled the city early on Sunday, said the residential area where he lives in the centre of Sirte had come under heavy artillery fire on Saturday.
“The reason there is shooting in the city centre is that the pro-Gaddafi militia has positioned artillery in the buildings where civilians live. The children are terrified and they are screaming all the time.”
He said he had been able to get out by borrowing money to buy black-market fuel. He said the rate in Sirte now was 600 dinars, or about $450, for 20 litres of fuel.
Doctors at a field hospital east of Sirte said four NTC fighters had been killed on Sunday in “friendly fire” incidents — testament to the often-chaotic conduct of the anti-Gaddafi forces.
The focus on the battle for the last pro-Gaddafi strongholds — and on tracking down Gaddafi himself — has left a power vacuum in Tripoli.
With no process in motion for electing a new leadership, power on the ground is wielded by anti-Gaddafi militias who are jockeying with each other for influence in the new Libya. Some analysts warn that this rivalry could turn violent.
One commander in Tripoli said he was setting up an armed group to keep order in the city, even though that function is already carried out by a body led by Abdulhakim Belhadj, a former militant Islamist.
“Who is he? Who appointed him?” said Abdullah Ahmed Naker, the head of the new group, when asked about Belhadj.
Additional reporting by William Maclean in Tripoli and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Kevin Liffey