About 200,000 Libyans are still under threat from fighters loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, a month after rebel forces took over Tripoli, according to Nato’s latest estimate.

“According to our latest assessment made last week there are still 200,000 people who are under threat... it’s nearing the end, there is a general feeling that we are in the final phase, but it’s not over yet,” Nato military spokesman Colonel Roland Lavoie said yesterday. Speaking at the command centre for the Libyan operation in Naples, Col Roland said all efforts were focused on the desert outpost of Bani Walid and the coastal city of Sirte – the last two contested areas, save for a few minor pockets of fighting in the south.

The situation in these two areas is critical. “Multiple sources, eyewitness accounts and intelligence reports reveal a worsening situation in these two towns, precipitated by Gaddafi efforts to control ground access points,” he said.

Gaddafi snipers are said to have been trapping civilians inside Sirte by controlling key roads.

“Numerous checkpoints and surrounding sniper positions are being used to prevent families from moving to safer locations, and Gaddafi mercenaries roam the streets, looking for anti-Gaddafi supporters, taking hostages and conducting executions,” Col Lavoie pointed out.

Over the weekend, revolutionary forces managed to overcome one such checkpoint northwest of Sirte, securing the safe exodus of “probably thousands of families”. However, this came at a significant price.

“There were heavy casualties on the side of the NTC (National Transitional Council) fighters.”

Nato warplanes have been shelling key targets in Sirte for the past weeks, taking out logistics centres, weapons depots and vehicles. However, particularly given the presence of so many civilians in the city, strategic bombing is a delicate job.

A key command centre, for instance, is located right next to a hospital.

“Under these conditions it is not very difficult to control a city. If you manage to put a few snipers in a strategic spot which we cannot bomb because of the potential of civilian casualties, you can control a large area with few resources,” one official told The Times.

Nonetheless, the city is surrounded, with the revolutionary forces now having even taken over the harbour.

“It is also our assessment that Gaddafi forces can’t hold their senseless posture for long, given the dynamics on the ground.”

Nato’s military leaders last week were given a 90-day extension on the operation, however, many commanders appear confident the mission is likely to be concluded before that time frame.

Alliance spokesperson Oana Lungescu stressed yesterday that the extension was made conditional on regular review, which means the North Atlantic Council could terminate the operation at any time and “as soon as possible”.

Nato’s departure, however, would not necessarily translate to the capture of Gaddafi.

There are no Nato soldiers on the ground and the alliance has been at pains to point out that the targeting of individuals was not part of its mandate.

“Our job was restricted to disable Gaddafi’s ability to use his vast weapons arsenal and military capability against his people.

There are people looking for him,” one official told The Times “but that is not us.”

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