The commander, who called himself Rake, said he was helping to coordinate a multipronged attack on the colonel’s loyalists, who still control a large swath of central Surt weeks after the anti-Qaddafi fighters launched an attack to capture the town.
Somewhere on the ground below, his colleagues — called Rambo, Black Crow and Gorilla — followed his instructions, firing mortars and a recoilless rifle toward a target that they could not see. “Shell, Rambo, shell!” Rake barked. But the round missed. “One hundred meters to the right, and a bit higher,” Rake ordered.
The view from the commander’s window offered a glimpse of the challenge still facing the anti-Qaddafi fighters, who are desperate to claim control of Surt, declare the Libyan war over and start forming a new government.
Standing in the way of that goal, the Qaddafi troops still control miles of territory inside the city, including tall structures — apartment blocks, hotels and administrative buildings — that offer comfortable nests for the loyalist snipers and dense urban cover for their artillery teams.
For several miles, from the anti-Qaddafi fighters’ positions to the sea, buildings like the sprawling apartment blocks known as the 1,000 dominate the landscape. On Monday, they preoccupied the former rebels, who had spent days trying to capture difficult ground, only to find themselves confronted with a daunting new challenge.
The fighting poses a continuing risk to an unknown number of civilians still in the city. At least a fifth of the city’s 100,000 residents are thought to have fled, according to aid workers. On Monday, a team from the International Committee of the Red Cross tried to evacuate about 100 patients from the Ibn Sina hospital, but the organization was having trouble finding Libyan hospitals that could take the patients, according to Dibeh Fakhr, a spokeswoman.
Monday afternoon, the Red Cross workers left, having evacuated only eight patients and promising to try again on Tuesday. Inside the hospital, former rebel soldiers roamed the halls, questioning patients about their injuries and whether they had fought with Qaddafi troops.
One anti-Qaddafi fighter asked a patient whether he had been a soldier. The patient, a man in his early 20s, said he had not. “If you’re clean, you’ll be leaving,” the fighter said. “If you’re not, you won’t.”
In front of the hospital, anti-Qaddafi fighters from Misurata had taken positions in a salmon-colored building on a hill, towering above the city. In a wooded area below, around a long concrete wall, other former rebel fighters fired heavy weapons at buildings to the northeast.
The commander known as Rake, wearing a helmet and a heavy beard, watched plumes of smoke rise in the middle distance. He had worked at a steel factory before the Libyan uprising. “I’m not a fighter,” he said. “I’m just a talker.”
To his left, there was the flash of rockets and then a deep boom. “It hit next to the building,” Rake said into his walkie-talkie. “Go to the right.” There were more explosions. “Four hundred meters to the right and increase the range,” Rake said.
Fighters filed in and out of the apartment, stepping over a college certificate of appreciation bestowed on a former resident. They watched the skyline and cheered when a puff of smoke appeared over the white buildings, indicating anti-Qaddafi scouts had reached the buildings and were marking their location.
There were pauses in the fighting. At one point, Rake pointed out a bird stuck in an air conditioner and dispatched a young fighter with a broomstick to rescue it. Late in the afternoon, the fighters cheered again: a direct hit.
“You did great, Rambo!” the commander said. A few minutes later, the fighter known as Rambo appeared, and the two men shared a moment of satisfaction.
Then they looked out at the city, still full of green flags.