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Libyan fighters push into Qaddafi's hometown

SIRTE, Libya — Hundreds of revolutionary fighters pushed into Muammar Qaddafi's hometown Saturday in the first significant assault in about a week as Libya's new rulers try to rout remaining loyalists of the fugitive leader. At the same time, the political leadership sought to boost its authority, promising to announce an interim government.

Explosions rocked the city of Sirte and smoke rose into the sky as Qaddafi's forces fired mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at the fighters. Ambulances sped from the direction of the front line, and a doctor said at least one fighter was killed and 25 others wounded in the battle.

The two sides have been locked in a standoff since former rebels tried to advance on the city a week ago but were repelled by fierce resistance. More than a month since the then-rebels swept into Tripoli and pushed Qaddafi out of power, they are still struggling to overcome his remaining strongholds in the center of the country and the south.

In the capital Tripoli, a series of explosions went off at a warehouse for military vehicles near the harbor Saturday afternoon and heavy black smoke poured out of the facility. The cause was not immediately known. One revolutionary fighter at the scene, Alaa Dali, said it may have been an accident but raised the possibility it was sabotage by Qaddafi loyalists.

So far, since the revolutionaries took over in early August, there have been no significant attacks in the capital. A single fire truck battled the fire, which charred the roof of the building.

The National Transitional Council, which was the leadership of the rebellion, is now Libya's formal rulers, though it is still working to establish its authority. On Saturday, the council's chief Mustafa Abdul-Jalil announced that the council will announce a new interim government in the coming week.

The move would persumably give their rule a more formal structure as they aim towards holding elections, and it could be an opportunity to expand the council's base. The NTC failed to seat a new Cabinet last week amid disagreements over which cities should be represented and other issues. On Saturday, Abdul-Jalil underlined that Libyans must be united to form a new government.

He spoke to reporters after returning from New York where he and the NTC's prime minister Mahmoud Jibril represented Libya at the first post-Qaddafi U.N. General Assembly.

In Sirte, revolutionary fighters occupied a key roundabout called Zafaran west of the downtown area in the Mediterranean coastal city, 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. They then advanced to a broadcasting station on a major boulevard. Many were wounded by hand grenades and snipers firing from tall buildings, according to witnesses returning from the front lines.

Moftah Mohammed, a 28-year-old fighter who brought four of his wounded friends to a field hospital on the western edge of the city, described heavy gunfire from houses and fierce street battles.

He said his friends were wounded by snipers who shot them as they drove forward to fire a rocket-propelled grenade, then attackers threw hand grenades at two other revolutionary fighters who went to pull the wounded from the car.

Revolutionary fighters tried to push into the city last weekend but were driven back by fierce rocket and gunfire, with at least 25 former rebels killed and dozens wounded. They pulled back to regroup and let civilians leave the area, although the two sides exchanged fire daily.

More than 1,300 families have left the city in the past week, fighters said. A few dozen waiting at a checkpoint outside the city on Saturday described rapidly deteriorating conditions, with entire families hiding in basements and children suffering from diarrhea because clean water is scarce.

The former rebels had said they would wait until civilians could escape, but al-Sugatri said commanders decided to advance because several families living in Sirte who are originally from the nearby anti-Qaddafi city of Misrata were in danger.

"There are lots of people from Misrata who are stuck in the city living in basements. They have no food or water and many of their children are sick so we had no choice but to attack," he said.

A field outside the city's western side was filled with trucks and ambulances filled with wounded men.

Munther Kareyem, a doctor at the field hospital, said one dead fighter and more than 25 wounded had been brought in with shrapnel wounds. One man lost a leg.

Men chanted "There is no god but Allah" as the slain fighter was carried out, covered by a bloodstained white sheet.