Libyan government forces fought their way, street by street, into the centre of Muammar Gaddafi's birthplace of Sirte on Wednesday after their commanders said the battle for the city was entering its final hours.

Taking Sirte would be of huge symbolic importance to Libya's new rulers because it would dispense with the biggest pocket of pro-Gaddafi resistance, and allow the interim government to switch its focus to preparing democratic elections.

The battle for the city has come at a high cost for civilians. They have been trapped by the fighting with dwindling supplies of food and water and no proper medical facilities to threat the wounded.

On Wednesday, the heavy artillery and rocket fire from Gaddafi loyalists that had been keeping fighters with the National Transitional Council pinned down on the outskirts of the city subsided, allowing the NTC forces to move in.

More than half the city is under the control of the (anti-Gaddafi) rebels, said Adel Al-Hasi, a local NTC commander. In two days, God willing, Sirte will be free.

A Reuters reporter near the centre of Sirte said she could hear the occasional thump of mortars landing near NTC positions, but that pro-Gaddafi forces had now resorted to using small arms as they switched to close-quarter fighting.

The NTC advance took them towards Sirte's government quarter, a grid of expensively built hotels, villas and conference centres where Gaddafi used to host foreign leaders.

One group of anti-Gaddafi fighters positioned themselves in a luxury hotel on the Mediterranean coast, using it as cover to fire on loyalists in a residential area about 300 metres (yards) away.

Built for Gaddafi and his guests, according to rebels posted there, the brand new hotel had jacuzzis, flat-screen televisions and mahogany furniture in the rooms.

The building though was now riddled with holes from bullets and rocket-propelled grenades. Smashed glass lay on the floor and there were bloodstains on the stairs.

We didn't yet take the centre of Sirte yet, said another NTC commander in the city, Colonel Ahmed Al-Obeidi. There are still clashes in the streets. They have a few mortars, not a lot ... They still have snipers.

International aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding inside Sirte.

They say people are dying from wounds in the hospital because they cannot be treated properly, while residents are falling ill from malnutrition and drinking tainted water.

Robert Lanknau, an aid worker with the International Medical Corps, said he was working at a field hospital near Sirte that was each day treating up to 100 civilians who were fleeing from the bombardment.

A lot of them seem to be shell-shocked, he said. The women especially. Down the road, mental health is going to be the biggest lingering health issue.

NATO DENIAL

Some people in Sirte have directed their anger at NATO, saying the alliance's warplanes were striking residential areas of the city.

A NATO spokesman said its aircraft had not carried out strikes on Sirte since the weekend and were sticking to their mandate to protect civilians.

The situation is very difficult and potentially confusing for the civilian people in Sirte at the moment, the spokesman, Roland Lavoie, said in a statement.

NATO aircraft overhead, while not striking during the close fighting in the city, are continuously conducting surveillance and reconnaissance missions to monitor the situation, said Lavoie.

On the Western edge of Sirte, a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was waiting for a break in the fighting, and agreement from the two sides, to send in a convoy of two trucks with supplies.

We are concerned about the civilian population. Our priority concern is care of the wounded and sick. We want to make sure they have proper care, said ICRC official Hishem Khadrawy.

We are trying again to do another operation for relief. We have had dialogue with all parties in the conflict and they assure us of their support, he said.

ANGRY RESIDENTS

On a ridge near the spot where the Red Cross convoy was waiting, two NTC tanks were lined up and firing shells into the city. Each shot sent up a cloud of dust and shook the small trees nearby. Off in the distance, columns of smoke rose up from where the shells hit.

There was no evidence of the Gaddafi loyalists responding with their own heavy weapons. That may be the result of days of bombardment of loyalist positions by NTC artillery batteries, and earlier strikes by NATO aircraft.

There was no sign either of civilian vehicles leaving, in contrast to previous days when hundreds of families have driven out of the city to seek refuge elsewhere.

The NTC -- anxious not to be seen using the same violent tactics that Gaddafi employed against rebel strongholds earlier in the conflict -- says it delayed its final push into Sirte until all the civilians who wanted to leave were out.

But residents of the city voiced anger and resentment at the anti-Gaddafi forces, saying they have shelled indiscriminately.

Many people in Sirte are members of Gaddafi's tribe and still support him, testing the commitment by Libya's new rulers to seek reconciliation with all sections of Libyan society, including those that backed Gaddafi.

Let them look for Muammar, but do not kill 50,000 people to change the regime, said a resident who gave his name as al-Fatouri. It is not worth it that thousands die in Sirte for Muammar. This is what saddens us.

Another resident, who did not give his name, demanded: What did America and NATO bring to us? Did they bring apricots? No, they brought us the shelling and the strikes. They terrorised our kids.