BENGHAZI, Libya — When Moammar Gadhafi came to power in 1969, at the age of 27, his hometown of Sirte was an unremarkable place, little more than a wide spot in the road where travelers moving along Libya's coastal highway might stop for gasoline.
Today, however, Sirte looms large in what's become the battle for Libya's future. Decades of lavish development projects have made the city fiercely loyal to Gadhafi, and its location astride Libya's main east-west highway, a bit more than halfway along the roughly 600-mile drive between Benghazi and Tripoli, makes it a critical point for any rebel force that wants to march east toward the capital.
Rebel military officials openly acknowledge that they fear going there.
"We can't go into Sirte. They would demolish us," explained Ahmed Saraya, a 35-year veteran of the Libyan army who's now fighting with rebel forces.
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What happens in Sirte and two other cities in central Libya with important ties to Gadhafi's personal life and rule could well dictate whether the rebellion that has left Gadhafi isolated in Tripoli ultimately succeeds in pushing him out.
Some 120 miles south of Sirte lies Hoon, home to a major military base that some say is the landing point for mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa. Another 120 miles south lies Sabha, the town where Gadhafi says his revolution began and where he spent his early school years.
A major highway connects the three — making Sirte the key not just to the west, but to a cordon of cities that splits the country nearly in half between the rebel-held east and the disputed west.
Together, Sirte, Sabha and Hoon are home to those most likely to support Gadhafi to the end — family members, recipients of the benefits of big development projects and former residents of Chad to whom Gadhafi gave Libyan citizenship in the 1980s during that country's civil war.
John Wright, a British journalist who wrote "A History of Libya," points out that under Gadhafi, Sirte has assumed an outsized importance for a city of 130,000 people in a country of 6 million.
"It was a very insignificant place 30 or 40 years ago," he said. "Nobody went there. There was nothing there except maybe a gas station. It was just a place on the road."
Since Gadhafi seized power, however, he's tried several times to make Sirte Libya's capital. Visiting foreign dignitaries were often brought there. Residents of Benghazi joke that one needs a passport to enter Sirte.
Whether there are any stirrings of rebellion there are unknown.
"We have no definite information and anyone who tells you he does is lying. We have no communications with them," Saraya said.
Residents reached by phone deny that anything exceptional is happening there. Rebels who have tried to drive to it reportedly have been arrested. Some have been executed, officials here charge, and rebels who say they'll make the drive west say they'll avoid Sirte and drive through the desert.
"Everything is normal. They are just a bunch of people who are drunk and on hallucinogens," said one Sirte resident identified only as Ahmed, to a friend in Benghazi over a cell phone call, repeating a Gadhafi claim. He refused to offer any details of the situation there.
Another Sirte resident promptly hung up the phone when told he was speaking to an American reporter.
What word comes out of Sirte is unverifiable.
Adil Adries, 32, claims he was a computer expert with a water company who was held by Gadhafi security forces for a week who forced him and a Filipino man to look through about 300 seized computers and describe what documents, e-mails and Internet sites they found.
Looking haggard, with a long face and beard, Adries said he hadn't witnessed any killings but had seen at least 170 men detained who'd been trying to pass to Tripoli and heard and witnessed beatings.
"I came here to tell you the horrors that are happening there," Adries said, speaking in the courthouse in Benghazi, where the temporary opposition government is taking shape.
But he can offer nothing to back his claims. He says he escaped Sirte in an Egyptian car provided by an Army major who defected. The journey to Benghazi took three days. But the Army major can provide no testimony. He was killed during the journey, Adries said.
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