Rebels nearing Sirte, NATO officials see end to conflict soon

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BANI WALID, Libya — Libyan fighters celebrated the fall of this stubborn former regime stronghold by firing weapons in the air and hanging revolutionary flags on buildings on Tuesday, while in another part of the country, their comrades launched a major assault on Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte.

The push from the east of Sirte to rout remaining resistance came a day after commanders announced they had captured most of a second stronghold, Bani Walid, 90 miles southeast of Tripoli.

While welcoming successes in Bani Walid, Libya’s new leaders have said they would only declare liberation after the fall of Sirte.

Revolutionary fighters have been locked in battle in Sirte and suffering heavy casualties after launching what they said would be an all-out final assault on Oct. 7.

“We didn’t find a regular army but only loyalists of Gadhafi, snipers with automatic weapons,” said military commander Ali Abdel-Rahman. “Some of the Gadhafi brigades took off their uniforms and vanished.”

He said even families had fled the area. “There was a widespread perception that there would be a massacre here and pools of blood, but on the contrary, it was very bloodless, swift and with no resistance.”

It has been more than two months since the former rebels gained control of the capital and much of the rest of the oil-rich North African nation. Persistent fighting has prevented Libya’s new leaders from declaring final victory and setting a timeline for elections.

Meanwhile in Brussels, a NATO spokeswoman says the military alliance is “very close” to terminating the seven-month long bombing campaign in Libya.

Spokeswoman Carmen Romero warned, however, that it is still too early to set the exact date because of the continuing threat to civilians from pro-Gadhafi fighters.

NATO warplanes have flown more than 9,500 strike sorties since March 19. With armed opposition limited to only a few more towns, the alliance has scaled back on the airstrikes, conducting an average of 15 a day in comparison to about 70-80 a day at the height of the campaign this summer.

Romero said on Tuesday the decision on ending the operation will be taken after NATO conducts a comprehensive political and military analysis of the security situation.

In an unannounced visit to Libya on Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought pledges of new U.S. aid totaling $11 million. That will boost Washington’s contribution to Libya to roughly $135 million.

U.S. officials said that the money was evidence of the administration’s commitment to working with the National Transitional Council as it consolidates control over the entire country and moves to hold free and fair elections.