Libyan civilians seriously injured during the fight to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi are being flown to the UK for care as revolutionary fighters try to crush opposition in the last loyalist stronghold.
Fighters yesterday attacked a convention centre in the centre of Sirte that forces loyal to Gaddafi have turned into their main base.
Commanders said it was a final offensive to crush resistance in the city after weeks of siege.
At least eight revolutionary fighters were killed and 125 were wounded, doctors said.
As efforts continue to crush the Gaddafi loyalists, the Foreign and Commonwealth office confirmed a total of 27 Libyan civilians have so far been admitted for care across the UK, with specialist treatment funded fully by the Libyan Government.
Two men who suffered gunshot wounds in the battle for Misrata yesterday become the latest to be admitted to British hospitals for treatment.
The men, aged 29 and 46, flew from Tunisia to Norwich International Airport yesterday to receive specialist surgery and rehabilitation at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.
A total of 50 Libyan civilian patients are to be cared for by the NHS at the request of the Libyan Government, which will cover all costs.
Alistair Burt, Foreign and Commonwealth Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “During the Prime Minister’s visit to Libya last month, the new Libyan authorities asked for our help in treating 50 Libyans who had been seriously injured during the conflict.
“Following the visit, the NHS sent a medical team to Tripoli to work with the Libyans to identify those who would benefit most from UK specialist expertise.
“So far more than 25 Libyan nationals have arrived in the UK for treatment. These include individuals affected by gunshot and shrapnel wounds and with severe burns. We expect more patients to arrive in the UK over the next week. I am proud of our excellent National Health Service and the fact that we have the expertise and compassion to help those in need.”
Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said he was proud that the NHS was able to help Libya in this way.
Professor Krishna Sethia, medical director at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, said: “As a specialist centre for orthopaedic, plastic and reconstructive surgery we were asked if we could offer our support and we are very pleased to be able to help provide this humanitarian medical assistance.
“It is expected they will be with us for a number of weeks as they will require clinically complex treatment from a range of our highly skilled medical, nursing and therapy staff.”
In Libya, the forces of Libya’s new rulers were pushing into the Mediterranean coastal city from the west, east and south in heavy fighting, trying to squeeze Gaddafi loyalists into a smaller and smaller perimeter.
The two sides battered each other with rockets, mortars and tanks, as Gaddafi snipers fired down on fighters advancing through housing complexes .
Ambulances sped down Sirte’s main avenue to a field hospital set up in an abandoned villa five miles from the centre.
Doctors said a senior commander, Ali Saeh of the Free Libya Brigade, was injured, shot twice by a sniper as he led fighters through loyalist forces in a residential area.
Sirte, Gaddafi’s home city, is considered the most crucial of the cities and areas that remain in the hands of supporters of the former Libyan leader, a month after revolutionaries swept into Tripoli and ousted him from power.
Leaders of the interim government have said that once Sirte falls they can start a timetable for elections.
The city is key to the physical unity of the country, since it lies roughly in the centre of the coastal plain where most of Libya’s 6.5 million people live, blocking the easiest routes between east and west.
Gaddafi loyalists, however, still control another major city, Bani Walid, in the central mountains, and Sabha deep in the deserts of the south.
Revolutionary fighters have been besieging Sirte for three weeks, facing gruelling resistance as they inched their way in, let residents flee and simultaneously moved to encircle it before the final assault.
Gaddafi’s loyalists have been barricaded into the Ouagadougou Centre, a grandiose conference hall that Gaddafi built in the city to host international summits. From there they have been able to dominate the defence of surrounding residential areas.
Deputy Defence Minister Fawzi Bukatif said yesterday revolutionary forces were poised to enter the city from all fronts in what he called a final attack on Sirte.
Revolutionary fighters launched an assault on the convention centre in the morning, said Altaib Aleroebi, who commanded fighters who led the attack.
Backed by rocket and tank fire, they pushed into the city, facing heavy machine gun and sniper fire, he said. The fighters drove loyalists back from a wall near the Ouagadougou Centre, he said.
Fighting was also going on near Green Square, the public plaza at the centre of Sirte, between the convention centre and the sea.