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Government forces enter Libya's Sabha, to cheers

From Ben Wedeman, CNN
September 21, 2011 -- Updated 0135 GMT (0935 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 4 people are killed Tuesday in Abuhadi, a spokesman says
  • There has been fighting in one Sabha neighborhood
  • The town has long been a transport center
  • Is Gadhafi hiding in Sabha? That's one rumor

Sabha, Libya (CNN) -- Sabha -- a dusty city southwest of Tripoli -- has long been considered a staunch pro-Moammar Gadhafi stronghold, but many of its residents greeted fighters from the new government warmly as they rolled into the city Tuesday.

A CNN crew accompanying National Transitional Council fighters witnessed people cheering for the new ruling forces. Fighting was reported in one neighborhood, al-Manshiya. Dr. Mohamad Altaib of Sabha central hospital reported some rebel fighters died from Gadhafi loyalist sniper fire there.

There have been press reports that Gadhafi, his family members or his political allies have been hiding out in the city -- the largest city in the Sahara and long a way station for smuggling operations to and from points south and west, such as Algeria, Niger and Chad.

The fall of Sabha is significant because it means other parts of Libya, still holding out, are now cut off.

NTC fighters fanned out across the city in search of Gadhafi associates. Weaponry was found in one house, but so far, there has been no sign of Gadhafi or Abdullah Al-Senussi, the former head of military intelligence. The men, thought to have been hiding in the city, are wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Many top officials of the old regime are thought to have passed through the city on their way to Niger but it would be tougher for them to do so now because the city is surrounded by NTC fighters.

People on the street said they are pleased Libya is free and have supported the uprising from the start. However, they haven't displayed their stances because of government suppression. At the same time, it's hard to gauge the extent of support or opposition for the NTC.

The NTC forces took the airport and the citadel, said Col. Ahmed Bani, the NTC's military spokesman, Monday. "Our flag is waving high in both locations," he said.

East of Sabha on Monday, a ragtag stream of civilians-turned-revolutionaries encountered scant resistance as they swept through oasis towns.

Sabha is among a handful of enclaves where Gadhafi has had support. About 400,000 people live in Sabha's province and about half of them live in the city. Other enclaves include Bani Walid and Sirte in the north.

At least 46 fighters loyal to Libya's new leaders have been killed and 221 wounded since they launched their offensive on Sirte, Ali Gheliwan, a spokesman for the Misrata Military Council, told CNN.

The death toll includes four people killed Tuesday in fighting south of the city, in Abuhadi, he said.

CNN's Kareem Khadder contributed to this report.

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