The siege of one of Muammar Gaddafi's last bastions comes as Libya's new rulers said they had unearthed a mass grave in Tripoli of 1,700 prisoners slain by his regime in a 1996 uprising, a massacre that helped trigger the revolt that ousted the despot.
As fighters loyal to the new leadership tightened the vice around Gaddafi loyalists in Sirte, civilians fleeing the city of some 70,000 spoke of rapidly deteriorating conditions for the remaining residents.
"The situation in the city is very critical," said Muftah Mohammed, a fish trader who was leaving in a convoy of seven vehicles with around 60 relatives and neighbours.
"There is no food, no water, no petrol and no electricity. This has been going on for nearly two months now as Gaddafi forces would not allow us to leave." Mohammed said that African mercenaries deployed in the city centre and on rooftops had been preventing residents from leaving.
"They are from Chad. They used to threaten us if we tried to leave," he said. "Children are in a particularly bad condition. There is no milk for them. We have all been surviving on just macaroni for several days." Pro-Gaddafi radio in Sirte kept up a steady barrage of propaganda broadcasts in a bid to rally his remaining loyalists.
"You must die for Gaddafi, you must die for country," the radio exhorted, playing a diet of songs extolling the "great guide," the ousted strongman's official title under the old regime.