Anti-Gaddafi fighters take cover as they come under fire at the entrance of the besieged desert town of Bani Walid. Image Credit: Reuters

Sirte: Powerful explosions and machinegun fire shook the besieged Libyan desert town of Bani Walid on Sunday as Muammar Gaddafi loyalists shelled lines held by interim government attackers.

Ill-organised forces of the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) have met strong resistance from the defenders of Gaddafi's last bastions in Bani Walid, the coastal city of Sirte and the town of Sabha, deep in the Libyan desert.

"We fought all night. We have surrounded the city from all sides with a range of 40 km," anti-Gaddafi commander Absalim Gnuna told Reuters at the northern gate of Bani Walid, as his fighters took cover behind walls and vehicles.

Some fired back at the town using anti-aircraft guns. "We need to organise ourselves better because now we are not organised," said 50-year-old NTC fighter Jamal Al Gharyani, who served for years in Gaddafi's army before switching sides.

"To liberate Bani Walid, heavy artillery has to go in first followed by infantry - like everywhere else. Right now it is not exactly chaos, but many of our fighters have no experience so it's not so easy," he said.

Fighters inch forward in Sirte

Revolutionary fighters have struggled to make gains in an assault into Gaddafi's hometown with bloody street-by-street battles against loyalist forces.

The fresh attack into the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte on Saturday contrasted with a stalemate in the mountain enclave of Bani Walid where demoralised anti-Gaddafi forces tried to regroup after being beaten back by loyalist snipers and gunners holding strategic high ground.

Intense resistance has stalled forces of Libya's new leadership trying to crush the dug-in fighters loyal to Gaddafi, weeks after the former rebels swept into Tripoli on August 21 and pushed the country's leader out of power and into hiding.

Sirte and Bani Walid are the main bastions of backers of the old regime in Libya's coastal plain, but smaller holdouts remain in the deserts of the center of the country.

A military spokesman for the transitional government said revolutionaries do not know Gaddafi's location.

Col. Ahmad Omar Bani pointed to the still uncollected bounty of nearly $2 million that the new leadership has put on the fugitive leader's head, saying, "Up to now we don't have any certain information or intelligence about his whereabouts."

Columns of black smoke rose over Sirte, as revolutionary fighters backed by heavy machine guns and rockets tried to push through crowded residential areas in the city.

They claimed to have gained less than a mile into the city, along the main coastal highway leading in from the west.

The forces were met by a rain of gunfire, rockets and mortars. A field hospital set up outside Sirte at a gas station filled with wounded fighters, including some from a convoy hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Twenty-four anti-Gaddafi fighters were killed and 54 wounded in the day's battles, the military council from the nearby city of Misrata reported.

The pro-regime radio station in Sirte repeatedly aired a recorded message it said was from Gaddafi, urging the city's defenders to fight on. "You must resist fiercely. You must kick them out of Sirte," the voice said. "If they get inside Sirte, they are going to rape the women." The voice resembled Gaddafi's but its authenticity could not be confirmed.

Gaddafi's spokesman, Moussa Ebrahim, vowed, "We have the ability to continue this resistance for months," in a phone call Friday to Syrian-based Al Rai TV, which has become the mouthpiece for the former regime.

The conditions inside Sirte were reportedly growing increasingly dire for those caught in the crossfire. Nouri Abu Bakr, a 42-year-old teacher fleeing the city, said there is no electricity or medicine and food supplies are nearly exhausted.

"Gaddafi gave all the people weapons, but those fighting are the Gaddafi brigade of loyalists," he said.

Hassan Dourai, Sirte representative in the new, interim government, said fighters reported seeing one of Gaddafi's sons, Muatassim, shortly before the offensives began on Friday, but he has not been spotted since the battles intensified.

The whereabouts of Gaddafi and several of his sons remain unknown. Other family members have fled to neighbouring Algeria and Niger.

Most of the hundreds of fighters assaulting Sirte are from Misrata, a city to the northwest along the coast that held out for weeks against a brutal Gaddafi siege during the civil war.