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Anti-Gadhafi fighters make gains in Sirte

SIRTE, Libya -- Revolutionary forces seized a convention center yesterday that had served as a key base for fighters loyal to Moammar Gadhafi in the fugitive leader's hometown, as they squeezed remaining regime loyalists in the besieged coastal city.

The inability to take Sirte, the most important remaining stronghold of Gadhafi supporters, more than six weeks after Tripoli was seized has stalled efforts by Libya's new leaders to set a timeline for elections and move forward with a transition to democracy.

Gadhafi supporters also hold the inland enclave of Bani Walid, where revolutionary forces reported gains after weeks of faltering advances that resulted in part from the challenging terrain of desert hills and steep valleys. Bani Walid is believed to be harboring high-level figures in the old regime.

The transitional leadership has said it will declare liberation after Sirte's capture because it would then hold all of the seaports and harbors in the Mediterranean country.

The de facto leader, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the governing National Transitional Council, said yesterday that anti-Gadhafi fighters have made huge gains in Sirte and Bani Walid, southeast of the capital.

"I do believe, God willing, that the liberation of these cities will happen within this week," he told reporters in Tripoli.

In Bani Walid, advancing fighters drove Gadhafi forces out of the airport, said Abdullah Kenshil, who led failed talks in search of a peaceful surrender of the city. "The takeover of Bani Walid is imminent," he said. "The fighters are only one kilometer from the heart of Bani Walid."

He said Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, was seen Saturday distributing cash to loyalists in Bani Walid. "We are 100 percent sure that he is inside, at least until last night," Kenshil said.

In Sirte, the Ouagadougou Convention Center, an ornate complex that Gadhafi frequently used for international summits, lay in ruins Sunday. Throughout the siege, his fighters had used the walled complex as a base and stronghold.

Revolutionary forces also control the University of Sirte on the southern outskirts. Gadhafi loyalists are fighting in an ever-shrinking defensive perimeter consisting only of a palace complex, some residential buildings and a hotel in the city center.

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