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Approaching Surt, rebels brace for a potentially decisive battle

A huge picture of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and other African leaders adorns a street in the Libyan city of Sirte.

KHALED DESOUKI/KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

The Mediterranean city that now finds itself on the front line of Libya's civil war is in many ways an unlikely battlefield.

The city of Surt is home to a number of soaring luxury hotels, replete with ornate presidential suites and regal wedding halls. Its wide streets are studded with marble conference complexes, Soviet-style architecture and a parliamentary assembly where world dignitaries would convene.

The city's 100,000 residents live in spacious apartment complexes in planned neighbourhoods, where, during peacetime, they would want for nothing, with shops brimming with food and supplies.

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To the rebels who have fought their way to the doorstep of this strategic city on the road to Tripoli, it must seem a world away from the destitution of eastern Libya, with its open sewers and abject poverty.

Before Colonel Moammar Gadhafi seized power in 1969, his hometown was relatively obscure. Six hundred kilometres from the capital, it is situated near oil reserves but had no infrastructure or assets to speak of.

Over the years, Col. Gadhafi lavished money on Surt, building it up in his image and reinforcing it with cadres of his elite troops. Their presence transformed the city into a bastion that Col. Gadhafi came to consider the political capital of all of Africa.

Now analysts say those fighters, as well as the city's structure itself, could prove difficult for the advancing rebels to defeat.

Surt's wide avenues and reinforced buildings provide Gadhafi loyalists good cover from coalition air strikes. Rebel fighters riding into town on pickup trucks could, by contrast, make easy targets.

It is also unclear how Surt's residents will react to rebel fighters storming into town. While cities to the east reacted as though they were being liberated by rebel forces, Surt is much more complicated.

The Gadhafi stronghold is dominated by the leader's own Gadhadhfa tribe. However, another large Surt tribe - the Firjan - are believed to oppose his rule. Rebel leaders have said they hope to leverage those tribal politics to their advantage.

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The city itself has flourished under Col. Gadhafi's rule, becoming both an expression of his ambition and a recipient of his largesse.

The Ouagadougou Conference Centre, an imposing marble-lined hall, is the embodiment of the leader's ostentatious tendencies. There, Col. Gadhafi has hosted a number of summits of foreign heads of state, including a long line of Western leaders. Apparently, he would invite the most high-profile of those to a tent complex on the nearby beach where they would spend the night.

The city's significance is also emblazoned on several documents. The Surt declaration, the founding document of the African Union, was signed there in 1999. A U.S. embassy cable published by WikiLeaks summarized the mood of such gatherings, describing one summit of African leaders as a "Gadhafi-centric dog and pony show." Whenever the leader himself visited, his convoy consisted of SUVs led by lines of police on Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

The rebels seem unfazed about the battle ahead, which could prove decisive in their efforts to topple Libya's leader.

Gamal Mughrabi, a 46-year-old rebel fighter, told Reuters there are competing forces inside Surt and said he was bracing for a difficult battle.

"Gadhafi is not going to give up Surt easily because straightaway after Surt is Misurata, and after that it's straight to Gadhafi's house," he said.

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"So Surt is the last line of defence."

With a report from Reuters

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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