Sirte is the focus for rebel forces in the east. Units have been moving slowly towards the coastal city all week, reinforcing with heavy armour and artillery from Brega and – on the western side – fighters from Misrata are closing in.
But look at what rebel leaders said yesterday and it sounds as if a battle for Sirte is some way off. Of course, such is the nature of the fog of war, that rebels could be fighting in the outskirts by tonight. I could be totally wrong about this. And the troops from Misrata sound as if they have closed to no more than about 20 miles.
But Mustapha Abdel Jalil, the head of the National Transitional Council, went out of his way at a presser yesterday to say rebels would try “all roads” to enter Sirte peacefully.
“We are very careful to avoid bloodshed,” he said. “And we are very careful to avoid more destruction especially as Sirte has within it some vital facilities and institutions.”
Shams al-Din Ben Ali, an NTC spokesman, told reporters that Sirte was ready to switch sides when it appeared that Saif Gaddafi was in rebel custody. “They were prepared to surrender,” he said. Those hopes were dashed of course when it became clear that Saif was a free man.
But it holds out the tantalising prospect that Sirte would cave in once Gaddafi or his sons were captured. Talking with a rebel negotiator today, it sounds as if the people of Sirte have very little idea what is going on elsewhere in the country. There is little power or petrol, so few can keep up with the TV news.
A battle for Sirte could be a lot more protracted and bloody than Tripoli. So could we be heading for a siege?