SIRTE, Libya, Sept 22 (Reuters) – Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi who control the city of Sirte have been executing residents suspected of sympathising with Libya’s new rulers, forces backing the country’s interim government and fleeing residents said.
On the Mediterranean coast about 450 km (280 miles) east of Tripoli, Sirte is Gaddafi’s hometown and one of just a handful of places in Libya still held by fighters loyal to him.
National Transitional Council (NTC) forces have surrounded the city for a week, but say their progress has been stymied largely because there are many civilians still inside the city, where residents report shortages of basic goods.
Hundreds of civilians continued to pour out of the city on Thursday in cars and pickups loaded with mattresses and food as the former rebel fighters fired machine guns and incoming rockets crashed on the city’s outskirts.
“The situation isn’t great,” said one resident who did not give his name as he left the city, where he said Gaddafi’s forces were moving “like gangs” through the streets.
“There have been executions,” he said, naming two men who he said had been executed on Thursday. He also said he had witnessed executions in front of the house of a local family, whose name he gave as Safruny.
An NTC commander on the outskirts of Sirte, separately showed Reuters a handwritten list of families whose members were said to have been executed in Sirte. The list, which he said he compiled with information from people inside the city, included the Safruny family.
The commander gave his first name as Saleh but declined to give his family name. He said other attacks on suspected NTC sympathisers had been carried out.
“One man, they cut him like this,” Saleh said, dragging his finger from the ends of his mouth across his cheeks. “Another, they cut his lips.”
Humanitarian groups have expressed concern about the situation in Sirte, and the fears have been compounded by reports from NTC fighters who say their family members inside have been prevented from leaving.
Hafed Makhlouf, a resident of Misrata, said his nephew had been executed in Sirte after he was accused of helping the NTC forces.
He said he received the news from some of his family who were still inside the city and were trying to escape. “They’re afraid of coming out and being detected by the enemy and executed by them,” he said.
Other fighters from Misrata also said they had family stuck inside but had no way of communicating with them.
Misrata, a port city west of Sirte, withstood a devastating siege earlier in the Libyan civil war that killed more than 1,000 residents. Most of the fighters now surrounding Sirte have come from there.
The fleeing resident who did not give his name said families linked to Misrata had been targeted particularly by Gaddafi loyalists in Sirte.
“Really, the situation is not good,” he said, shaking his head and staring out the windshield of his car.
Accounts from inside Sirte could not be independently verified as journalists have not been able to move beyond the outskirts of the city held by NTC forces.
A spokesman for Gaddafi, who contacted Reuters on Thursday, said it was the anti-Gaddafi forces, and NATO warplanes, which were killing people in Sirte, not the other way around.
“Between yesterday and this morning, 151 civilians were killed inside their homes as the Grad rockets and other explosives fell upon their heads,” the spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said in a satellite phone call to Reuters in Tunis.
“The city hospital stopped functioning altogether last night. Patients died simply because nothing can be done to help them.”