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Libyan rebels meeting stiff resistance

SIRTE, Libya -- Revolutionary fighters struggled to make gains in an assault into Moammar Gadhafi's hometown yesterday with bloody street-by-street battles against loyalist forces fiercely defending the most symbolic of the shattered regime's remaining strongholds.

The fresh attack into the Mediterranean coastal city of Sirte contrasted with a stalemate in the mountain enclave of Bani Walid where demoralized anti-Gadhafi 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 loyalist fighters, weeks after the former rebels swept into Tripoli on Aug. 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. Some smaller holdouts remain in the deserts of the nation's center, and another major stronghold, Sabha, lies in the deep south.

The resistance has raised fears of a protracted insurgency of the sort that has played out in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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

Col. Ahmed Omar Bani pointed to the uncollected bounty of nearly $2 million that the new leadership has offered for Gadhafi, 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.

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-Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi, 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 Gadhafi's but its authenticity could not be confirmed.

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