Friday, September 30, 2011

Civilians surge out of Sirte, say food dwindling

SIRTE (Reuters) - Civilians fled Sirte on Friday as interim government forces pounded the coastal city in an effort to dislodge fighters loyal to ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi.
The prolonged battle for Gaddafi's hometown, besieged from three fronts, has raised concern for civilians trapped inside the city of about 100,000 people, with each side accusing the other of endangering them.
Cars streamed out of Sirte from the early hours and into the afternoon. Shelling and tank fire continued from both sides on the eastern and western fronts, black smoke rose from the center of town and NATO planes flew overhead.
A Reuters team on the edge of Sirte heard five huge explosions just before sundown. It was not immediately clear what had caused the explosions.
Fighting was particularly heavy near a roundabout on the eastern outskirts of the city, where NTC forces have been pinned down by sniper and artillery fire for five days, Reuters journalists at the scene said.
Some fighters again fled the frontline under the fire.
"It's difficult, difficult," said anti-Gaddafi fighter Rami Moftah. "You know, with the snipers. You can't find them. Yesterday there was no ammunition. It was finished. I swear to God. If the Gaddafi people knew that they would have come and taken Sirte from us."
Several residents told Reuters they were leaving Sirte because they had not eaten for days.
"I am not scared. I am hungry," said Ghazi Abdul-Wahab, a Syrian who has lived in the town for 40 years, patting his stomach.
Abdul-Wahab said he had been sleeping in the streets with his family after a NATO airstrike hit a building next to his house, making him fear his home could also be struck.
"People inside are scared about their houses. People want to protect their houses," he said, adding that some locals may fight because they have heard the NTC wants to kill them.
Some residents said they had paid up to $800 for the fuel to leave the city because it was in short supply. Others said pasta and flour were now changing hands for large sums of money.
Doctors at a field hospital near the eastern front line said an elderly woman died from malnutrition on Friday morning and they had seen other cases.
A man with a shrapnel wound to his left arm said the hospital in Sirte had no power and few supplies. A doctor had tried to patch up his wound by the light of a mobile phone.
"I was injured in my garden at 1 p.m. but I stayed home until the evening because of the heavy fire," Mohammed Abudullah said at a field hospital outside the city.
Gaddafi loyalists and some civilians were blaming NATO air strikes and shelling by the forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) for killing civilians.
NATO and the NTC deny that. They and some other civilians coming out of the town say pro-Gaddafi fighters are executing people they believe to be NTC sympathizers.
"It is not the Gaddafi people and not you people," one elderly man shouted, gesturing toward NTC fighters at a checkpoint as he left the city.
"It's the French planes that are hitting us night and day. They knocked the roof off our house. Is this how we're supposed to die?"
Ahmad Mohammed Yahya told Reuters street fighting was erupting in the town most nights and that pro-Gaddafi fighters were aggressively recruiting local people.
"Sometimes they offer to give you a weapon," he said. "And sometimes they take people and force them to fight."
The NTC is under pressure to strike a balance between a prolonged fight that would delay its efforts to govern and a quick victory which, if too bloody, could worsen regional divisions and embarrass the fledgling government and its foreign backers.
Aid agencies said this week a humanitarian disaster loomed in Sirte amid rising casualties and shrinking supplies of water, electricity and food.
Libya's interim government has asked the United Nations for fuel for ambulances to evacuate its wounded fighters from Sirte, a U.N. source in Libya said on Thursday.
The U.N. is sending trucks of drinking water for the civilians crammed into vehicles on the road from Sirte, heading either toward Benghazi to the east or Misrata to the west, he added.
But fighting around the city and continuing insecurity around Bani Walid, the other loyalist hold-out, are preventing the world body from deploying aid workers inside, he said.
"There are two places we'd really like access to, Sirte and Bani Walid, because of concern on the impact of conflict on the civilian population," the U.N. source in Tripoli, speaking by telephone on condition of anonymity, told Reuters in Geneva.
The NTC says efforts to form a new interim government have been suspended until after the capture of Sirte and Bani Walid.
There has been speculation that divisions are preventing the formation of a more inclusive interim government.
More than a month after NTC fighters captured Tripoli, Gaddafi remains on the run, trying to rally resistance to those who ended his 42-year rule.
The military chief of Libya's new interim government attended a meeting on Friday between Tuareg tribesmen and local Arabs in the southwestern town of Ghadames aimed at patching up differences that have recently spilled over into violence.
The Saharan trading town close to the Algerian border drew international attention this week when an NTC official said Gaddafi was believed to be hiding nearby.
(Additional reporting by Mahdi Talat in Sirte, William MacLean in Tripoli, Ali Shuaib in Ghademes and Emad Omar in Benghazi; Writing by Barry Malone; Editing by Sophie Hares)

US strike kills American al-Qaida cleric in Yemen

SANAA, Yemen (AP) — In a significant new blow to al-Qaida, U.S. airstrikes in Yemen on Friday killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American militant cleric who became a prominent figure in the terror network's most dangerous branch, using his fluent English and Internet savvy to draw recruits for attacks in the United States.
The strike was the biggest U.S. success in hitting al-Qaida's leadership since the May killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. But it raises questions that other strikes did not: Al-Awlaki was an American citizen who has not been charged with any crime. Civil liberties groups have questioned the government's authority to kill an American without trial.
The 40-year-old al-Awlaki was for years an influential mouthpiece for al-Qaida's ideology of holy war, and his English-language sermons urging attacks on the United States were widely circulated among militants in the West.
But U.S. officials say he moved into a direct operational role in organizing such attacks as he hid alongside al-Qaida militants in the rugged mountains of Yemen. Most notably, they believe he was involved in recruiting and preparing a young Nigerian who on Christmas Day 2009 tried to blow up a U.S. airliner heading to Detroit, failing only because he botched the detonation of explosives sewn into his underpants.
Yemen's Defense Ministry and U.S. officials said another American militant was killed in the same strike alongside al-Awlaki — Samir Khan, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani heritage who produced "Inspire," an English-language al-Qaida Web magazine that spread the word on ways to carry out attacks inside the United States. U.S. and Yemeni officials said two other militants were also killed in the strike but did not immediately identify them.
Washington has called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the branch in Yemen is called, the most direct threat to the United States after it plotted that attack and a foiled attempt to mail explosives to synagogues in Chicago.
President Barack Obama declared al-Awlaki's killing a "major blow" to al-Qaida's most active affiliate, and vowed a vigorous U.S. campaign to prevent the terror network and its partners from finding safe haven anywhere in the world.
Obama said al-Awlaki "directed" the Christmas plane bombing attempt as well as a failed attempt to mail explosives to the United States, "and he repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda."
In July, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said al-Awlaki was a priority target alongside Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's successor as the terror network's leader.
The Yemeni-American had been in the U.S. crosshairs since his killing was approved by Obama in April 2010 — making him the first American placed on the CIA "kill or capture" list. At least twice, airstrikes were called in on locations in Yemen where al-Awlaki was suspected of being, but he wasn't harmed.
The operation that killed al-Awlaki was run by the U.S. military's elite counterterrorism unit, the Joint Special Operations Command — the same unit that got bin Laden.
A U.S. counterterrorism official said American forces targeted a convoy in which al-Awlaki was traveling with a drone and jet attack and believe he's been killed. The official was not authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Yemeni government announced that al-Awlaki was "targeted and killed" around 9:55 a.m outside the town of Khasaf in a desert stretch of Jawf province, 87 miles (140 kilometers) east of the capital Sanaa. It gave no further details.

A senior tribal chief who helped bury the bodies in a cemetery in Jawf said seven people were killed in the strike, their bodies totally charred. The chief said the brother of one of the dead, who had given the group shelter in his home, had witnessed the strike.According to the chief, the witness said al-Awlaki was travelling in a pick-up with six other people on their way to neighboring Marib province. They stopped for breakfast in the desert and were sitting on the ground to eat when they spotted drones, so they rushed to their truck. A missile struck the truck, leaving it a charred husk and killing all inside. The chief spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be connected to the group, and he did not identify the witness.
Al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, began as a mosque preacher as he conducted his university studies in the United States, and he was not seen by his congregations as radical. While preaching in San Diego, he came to know two of the men who would eventually become suicide-hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The FBI questioned al-Awlaki at the time but found no cause to detain him.
In 2004, al-Awlaki returned to Yemen, and in the years that followed, his English-language Internet sermons increasingly turned to denunciations of the United States and calls for jihad, or holy war.
Al-Awlaki exchanged up to 20 emails with U.S. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, alleged killer of 13 people in the Nov. 5, 2009, rampage at Fort Hood. Hasan initiated the contacts, drawn by al-Awlaki's Internet sermons.
Al-Awlaki has said he didn't tell Hasan to carry out the shootings, but he later praised Hasan as a "hero" on his Web site.
In New York, the Pakistani-American man who pleaded guilty to the May 2010 Times Square car bombing attempt told interrogators he was "inspired" by al-Awlaki after making contact over the Internet.
After the Fort Hood attack, al-Awlaki moved from Yemen's capital, Sanaa, into the mountains where his Awalik tribe is based and — it appears — built direct ties with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, if he had not developed them already. The branch is led by a Yemeni militant named Nasser al-Wahishi.
Yemeni officials have said al-Awlaki had contacts with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the accused would-be Christmas plane bomber, who was in Yemen in 2009. They say the believe al-Awlaki met with the 23-year-old Nigerian, along with other al-Qaida leaders, in al-Qaida strongholds in the country in the weeks before the failed bombing.
Al-Awlaki has said Abdulmutallab was his "student" but said he never told him to carry out the airline attack.
The cleric is also believed to have been an important middleman between al-Qaida militants and the multiple tribes that dominate large parts of Yemen, particular in the mountains of Jawf, Marib and Shabwa province where the terror group's fighters are believed to be holed up.
Last month, al-Awlaki was seen attending a funeral of a senior tribal chief in Shabwa, witnesses said, adding that security officials were also among those attending. Other witnesses said al-Awlaki was involved in negotiations with a local tribe in Yemen's Mudiya region, which was preventing al-Qaida fighters from traveling from their strongholds to the southern city of Zinjibar, which was taken over recently by Islamic militants. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals and their accounts could not be independently confirmed.
Yemen, the Arab world's most impoverished nation, has become a haven for hundreds of al-Qaida militants. The country has also been torn by political turmoil as President Ali Abdullah Saleh struggles to stay in power in the face of seven months of protests. In recent months, Islamic militants linked to al-Qaida have exploited the chaos to seize control of several cities in Yemen's south, including Zinjibar.
A previous attack against al-Awlaki on May 5, shortly after the May raid that killed Osama bin Laden, was carried out by a combination of U.S. drones and jets.
Top U.S. counterterrorism adviser John Brennan has said cooperation with Yemen has improved since the political unrest there. Brennan said the Yemenis have been more willing to share information about the location of al-Qaida targets, as a way to fight the Yemeni branch challenging them for power.
Yemeni security officials said the U.S. was conducting multiple airstrikes a day in the south since May and that U.S. officials were finally allowed to interrogate al-Qaida suspects, something Saleh had long resisted, and still does so in public. The officials spokes on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence issues.
AP correspondents Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, Lolita Baldor and AP Intelligence Writer Kimberly Dozier in Washington and Lee Keath and Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.