SIRTE, Libya - Libyan government forces said on Tuesday they believed they had one of Muammar Gaddafi's sons cornered in the centre of the deposed leader's home town, but determined resistance was keeping them at bay.
After weeks of fighting, National Transitional Council (NTC) forces have taken most of Sirte and driven Gaddafi loyalists into two northern neighbourhoods near the Mediterranean shore.
Capturing the city, which Gaddafi had turned into a showcase second capital, will consolidate the NTC's control in Libya and allow it to focus on rebuilding the country, but international concern about civilians caught up in the fighting has mounted.
One NTC commander said Gaddafi fighters were defending their last two districts in Sirte tenaciously because Mo'tassim Gaddafi, his father's national security adviser, was with them.
"There are a few (Gaddafi-held) pockets, mainly concentrated in the 'Dollar' neighbourhood," said Colonel Mohammed Ajhseer. "According to the information we have, this is where Mo'tassim is, with another group."
As the fighting raged in the streets, terrified families were emerging from their houses and trying to leave.
NTC fighters surrounded their vehicles and searched them for weapons -- a mark of the deep mistrust in Sirte, where many people belong to Gaddafi's tribe and opposed his overthrow.
"There are explosions all the time," said one woman, who was in a white van with seven children. "There is no water. There is nothing," she said, then started crying.
One man said he and his family had tried to leave the city twice before but had to turn back because they had no fuel for their car and the fighting was too heavy.
"We didn't know how to sleep because of the explosions. We couldn't even leave the house. There is no food. We just had flour and salt and bread," he said, as his wife, who was weeping, sat in their vehicle with their three children.
On the western outskirts of Sirte, a flat-bed truck drove out carrying about 30 people, including children clutching dolls and blankets. It was raining, and they were wet and shivering.
They said they originally came from Morocco and Sudan, and had been trapped in Sirte because Gaddafi militias would not let them leave.
One of them, Abdul Menem Ahmed, from Ondurman in Sudan, said he had been working as an accountant in Libya for 14 years.
"The Gaddafi militias say everything is fine, then about 10 minutes later the shelling starts. There is no food no water, no medicine," he said.
The fighting on Tuesday focused on Omar al-Mokhtar street, a tree-lined thoroughfare in a well-heeled neighbourhood.
A Reuters reporter said NTC fighters took cover in side streets out of sight of loyalist snipers hidden in buildings further up the road. They took turns to dart out, shouting "Allahu Akbar (God is great)", fire a few shots and rush back.
Typically for an amateur fighting force, the NTC effort was brave but chaotic. One thickly bearded man in a wheelchair was pushed into the main street by a comrade, fired his Kalashnikov rifle at Gaddafi loyalists, and was then pushed back to safety.
The Reuters reporter said she saw another fighter taken back into a side street bleeding heavily from a back wound after he had been firing a Soviet-designed "Dushka" heavy machinegun.
Muammar Gaddafi himself is not in Sirte, according to NTC officials coordinating the hunt for him, but is instead believed to be far to the south in the Sahara desert.
With Libya's new rulers focused on the bruising battles for Sirte and Bani Walid, another pro-Gaddafi town, a political vacuum has emerged. There is no formal government and the process of holding elections is on hold.
Armed anti-Gaddafi factions from different regions are vying for power, complicating the NTC's task of asserting national control in the oil-exporting nation of six million people.
Sirte, once a fishing village, has symbolic significance because Gaddafi used it as a prop in the personality cult he built during his 42 year rule. He built opulent villas, hotels and conference halls there to host Arab and African leaders.
A commander of NATO, whose warplanes patrol the skies over Sirte and sometimes bomb Gaddafi-held targets, said the former leader's forces in the city were showing surprising resilience.
"It's really been quite interesting how resilient and fierce they've been," General Ralph J. Jodice II was quoted as saying by the New York Times.
"We're all surprised by the tenacity of the pro-Gaddafi forces. At this point, they might not see a way out."
NTC forces have captured Sirte's most important landmarks, including the Ouagadougou conference hall, where Gaddafi once hosted lavish summit meetings, the hospital and the university.
On a hilltop further south, several hundred NTC fighters were massing for a fresh offensive on the pro-Gaddafi holdouts, battering them first with tank and artillery fire.
Each artillery salvo set off the burglar alarms of cars parked nearby. (Additional reporting by Barry Malone and Joseph Logan in Tripoli; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.