Anti-Gaddafi fighters return fire in Sirte
Anti-Gaddafi fighters return fire in Sirte during clashes with pro-Gaddafi forces, Oct., 2011. There have been unconfirmed reports that the former dictator's son, Mutassim, has been captured by rebel forces. REUTERS

The birthplace of ousted Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi, Sirte has risen from relative obscurity to become the focus both of Gaddafi's grandiose ambitions and for the revolutionaries struggling to seal their hard-won victory.

In Gaddafi's visions, the coastal city of roughly 135,000 located halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi would one day rise to become the political capital of what he dubbed the "United States of Africa."

After seizing power in 1969, Gaddafi lavished money on his hometown in a bid to transform it into a showcase for his proclaimed "revolution." From 1988, the Libyan parliament and most government departments were relocated from Tripoli to Sirte, although Tripoli remained the official capital.

To fulfill Gaddafi's vision, opulent hotels and villas were built across the city - intended to accommodate foreign diplomats and heads of state. The centrepiece of this extravagant development was the Ouagadougou Conference Centre, a fortress-like construction where envoys and politicians could meet in a marble-lined hall.

Following the capture of Tripoli by rebel forces, Gaddafi declared Sirte to be the new capital of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, his self-styled government, on Sept. 1.

The National Transitional Council, Libya's new rebel-led regime, said it aims to take full control of Sirte after having seized key targets, including the Ouagadougou Conference Centre, on Sunday.

But residents of the city remain fiercely loyal to their fugitive leader, who they say helped transform Sirte into a modern and thriving place to live. Fighting between the two factions is expected to intensify this week as NTC forces battle to gain strategic control over the city's ports and oil fields.

There have been reports that foreign companies have been quietly returning to the oil fields east of the city, suggesting that Sirte may still prove to be a key player in the reconstruction of the country.