A spokesman in Benghazi said rebels based in east Libya had captured Sirte on Monday, but a Reuters correspondent in the city said there was no sign that rebel forces were in control.
“We heard from Benghazi that the rebels are in Sirte, but it is not for sure because Gaddafi’s soldiers are firing rockets from Sirte, so we are not certain,” 23-year-old Mohamed, a lawyer turned rebel fighter, said in the town of Ras Lanuf.
Emboldened by Western-led air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces, rebels in the oil-producing North African country have pushed west along the Mediterranean coast to retake a series of towns in short order.
Reversing earlier losses in a back-and-forth five-week insurgency, they have regained control of all the main oil terminals in eastern Libya, as far as the town of Bin Jawad.
Rebel fighters lined up for petrol at a fuel station in Ras Lanuf, where dozens of pick-ups were heading west along the coast.
Contradicting the rebel claim to have a captured Sirte, an important military base about 450 km (280 miles) west of the capital Tripoli, Reuters correspondent Michael Georgy reported from the city that the situation was normal. He had seen some police and military, but no signs of any fighting.
As Gaddafi’s birthplace, Sirte has great symbolic importance. If it fell, the rebels would gain a great psychological boost and the road towards Tripoli would lie open.
“We want to go to Sirte today. I don’t know if it will happen,” said 25-year-old rebel fighter Marjai Agouri as he waited with 100 others outside Bin Jawad with three multiple rocket launchers, six anti-aircraft guns and around a dozen pickup trucks mounted with machineguns.
The advance along Libya’s Mediterranean coast by a poorly armed and uncoordinated force of volunteer rebels suggested that Western strikes under a U.N. no-fly zone were shifting the battlefield dynamics dramatically, in the east at least.
The rebels are now back in control of the main oil terminals in the east — Es Sider, Ras Lanuf, Brega, Zueitina and Tobruk — while Gaddafi appears to be retrenching in the west.
Nearer the capital, Gaddafi’s forces fought rebels in the centre of Misrata, Libya’s third city, to try to consolidate his grip on western Libya. Misrata is the only western city still in rebel hands and has been sealed off for weeks.
A resident called Saadoun told Reuters by phone that at least eight people were killed and 24 wounded when Gaddafi’s forces fired mortar shells while attacking Misrata from the west in a day of fighting.
Pro-Gaddafi snipers were also pinning down rebel forces but late on Sunday night the fighting died down.
A rebel called Mohammed told Reuters by phone that pro-Gaddafi forces controlled “only one small area, a couple of streets” in the western part of the city.
Residents told Reuters they were having to use wells to get water and that medicines were in short supply. Reuters