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Rebel forces capture Gadhafi stronghold

BANI WALID, Libya -- Revolutionary forces celebrated the capture of one Moammar Gadhafi stronghold and closed in yesterday on the last holdouts in the fugitive leader's hometown of Sirte, putting total victory in their eight-month uprising just a few city blocks away.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on a previously undisclosed visit to Tripoli, offered millions of dollars in new aid to Libya, encouraging the country's unsteady new leadership to commit to a democratic future free of retribution.

"I am proud to stand here on the soil of a free Libya," Clinton said. "The United States was proud to stand for you in your fight for freedom and we will continue to stand with you as you continue this journey."

Although two months have passed since Gadhafi fled the capital, Libya's new leaders have refrained from declaring national "liberation" until the fall of Sirte, which Gadhafi transformed from a fishing village into a modern city after he seized power in 1969.

Tuesday, revolutionary forces pushed from the east into the small pocket of the city under the control of Gadhafi loyalists and captured a vegetable market, though they came under heavy fire from snipers and rocket-propelled grenades on the rooftops of residential buildings and homes along major streets.

Abdul-Hadi Ali, fighting with the revolutionary forces, said the battle for Sirte, 250 miles southeast of Tripoli, was essentially finished and he was returning home to the eastern city of Benghazi.

"The fighting in Sirte is nearly over," Ali said, adding that the holdouts were surrounded in a narrow, two-block area. "I think they have a lot of ammunition, but our fighters will fire Grads and get it over with so maybe tomorrow it will be liberated and bombed and we will begin the hunt for Gadhafi."

In an apparent warning that Gadhafi could still threaten the new leadership if he continues to elude capture, Clinton acknowledged in unusually blunt terms that the United States would like to see the ousted dictator dead.

"We hope he can be captured or killed soon so that you don't have to fear him any longer," Clinton told students and others at a town hall-style gathering in the capital. Until now, the United States has generally avoided saying Gadhafi should be killed.

Libyan military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani said Monday that the search would intensify after authorities declare victory.

"Now we are trying to liberate Sirte . . . and then we will talk about Gadhafi. It's not so important now," he told reporters.

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