New Libyan regime forces have largely seized one of the last three main bastions of Moamar Gaddafi, a month after the strongman was toppled, officials said.
Sabha, deep in the North African state’s Sahara desert, has been holding out along with Bani Walid and Gaddafi’s hometown Sirte since the fall of the capital Tripoli on August 23.
The win is good news for National Transitional Council (NTC) troops after suffering heavy losses from their assault on Sirte.
“We control most of Sabha apart from the al-Manshiya district. This is still resisting, but it will fall,” NTC military spokesman Ahmed Bani said.
A CNN correspondent says NTC fighters are occupying the centre of Sabha after taking the airport and a fort the day before.
Sabha has a large population of sub-Saharan Africans, many of whom fear reprisals from the NTC because of a belief that many fought as Gaddafi mercenaries during the civil war.
It occupies a strategic location as the last notable town in Libya before the country opens out into vast desert, which has been an escape route for some members of Gaddafi’s family.
There were reports earlier that Gaddafi himself may be hiding in the town along with his most politically prominent son, Saif al-Islam, but NTC fighters in Sabha have reported no sign of them.
NTC forces have faced stiffer resistance than expected in their efforts to take Bani Walid and Sirte, and have had several major assaults repulsed by heavy fire from pro-Gaddafi forces.
At least 45 NTC fighters have been killed and more than 200 wounded since they launched an offensive on Sirte last week, medics in Misrata said.
Local hospitals are full of the wounded from the assault, forcing the NTC to send critically wounded troops abroad.
“The offensive on Sirte has been high intensity in terms of casualties,” Dr Suheib Abu Garza said in Misrata, about 150 kilometres east of Sirte, where the casualties of battle are being brought.
Dr Garza says he has not seen such numbers of serious cases since forces loyal to Gaddafi laid siege to Misrata soon after the rebellion began in February.
NTC fighters moved in on Sirte from the west and south on September 15, while another NTC force is still fighting its way towards the city from the east.