TRIPOLI, Libya – Gunmen loyal to Moammar Gadhafi have crossed the Libyan border from Algeria and attacked revolutionary forces in a town near the frontier, killing six people, officials said Sunday.
The cross-border attack on Saturday shows loyalist forces have managed to escape Libya and regroup and collect arms, bolstering fears the North African nation could face a protracted insurgency.
Col. Ahmed Bani, a military spokesman for the transitional government, said the attack on Ghadamis occurred Saturday but revolutionary forces had intelligence that cars filled with weapons had crossed the border a few days earlier. Ghadamis is about 280 miles (450 kilometers) southwest of Tripoli.
He said the loyalist forces were believed to belong to a unit that had been under the command of Gadhafi’s son Khamis, who was reportedly killed in fighting before the revolutionary forces seized Tripoli.
Bani said revolutionary forces had repelled the attack but the assailants escaped back across the border.
An official from Ghadamis, Ali al-Mana, however, said fighting was ongoing. He told The Associated Press that six people had been killed and 63 wounded.
“We are sending a plane from Tripoli to evacuate the wounded,” said al-Mana, who is the Ghadamis representative on the National Transitional Council, which is acting as the country’s government. Al-Mana said Ghadamis has a small runway for the plane to land.
Gadhafi’s wife and three of his children, including his daughter Aisha, fled to Algeria through Ghadamis after Tripoli’s fall late last month. The whereabouts of the fugitive leader remain unknown and he continues to try to rally supporters. That has raised concern that he could stoke violence as fighting continues between revolutionary forces in his hometown of Sirte and two other strongholds.
Aisha Gadhafi, who played a key role in her father’s inner circle, said in an audio recording broadcast Friday that her father is in high spirits and fighting alongside his supporters. She called the country’s new leaders traitors, noting that some of them were members of Gadhafi’s regime before defecting in the civil war.
“I assure you, he is fine, a believer in God, in good spirits, is carrying his gun and is fighting side by side with the warriors,” she said in the recording broadcast on the Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become the mouthpiece of Gadhafi’s resistance.
In other developments on Sunday, revolutionary fighters stepped up a siege of Sirte, hoping to wear down loyalist forces a day after an offensive failed to dislodge die-hard loyalists of the fugitive leader.
Anti-Gadhafi fighters set up new checkpoints and posted snipers in strategic areas on the outskirts of Sirte. But they said they were not planning another assault immediately after facing fierce resistance on Saturday that left seven of their comrades dead and more than 150 wounded.
“It’s unlikely we’ll attack today unless we are attacked,” said Aiman Majub, who helps coordinate revolutionary forces. “The idea is to catch our breath and regroup so we can be more strategic instead of blasting our way in.”
Saturday’s battle for downtown Sirte was the first significant push in a week and included close-range gunfights with loyalists hiding in apartment buildings and throwing hand grenades from windows. The fighters pushed east along the city’s main thoroughfare into its urban center, overrunning a TV station as NATO warplanes supporting anti-Gadhafi forces roared overhead.
Osama Nuttawa al-Swehli, a revolutionary logistics officer, said the goal on Sunday was to squeeze the city and prevent any former regime figures believed to be holed up inside from escaping. Al-Swehli said he has heard Gadhafi’s son Muatassim communicating by radio with loyalist forces inside Sirte.
“We have to make sure that no supplies get in and that none of their assets escape,” he said.
“The priority today is to hold our positions while pounding their targets,” he said, adding that they needed to take out loyalist rocket launchers before making another push to take the city.
He said that seven men were killed and 152 wounded, 17 seriously, in Saturday’s fighting. Four of those injured lost limbs and four others had serious head wounds, he said.
Sirte, 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast, is the Libyan city most associated with Gadhafi.
Revolutionary forces have been working to help civilians trying to flee the city amid rapidly deteriorating living conditions. More than a dozen families drove out toward the west Sunday morning, riding in battered cars with mattresses and suitcases strapped to their roofs.
Al-Swehli said he thinks most of the families who intend to flee have already left the city. It remains unclear how many civilians remain inside the city and if they are helping loyalist forces.
Hubbard reported from Sirte. Associated Press writer Rami al-Shaheibi contributed to this report from Benghazi.