A spokesman for rebel forces in Libya claims that they have captured Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, the gateway to Western Libya, currently the stronghold for government forces.

(A note on spelling: Earlier I labeled this city as “Surt.” To best give English equivalents of Libyan words, I find you just have to pick a spelling and go with it. However, with virtually every news source out there using “Sirte,” I’m changing.)

The spokesman said that the rebels moved into the city in the middle of the night and encountered no resistance. There have been reports of military vehicles leaving Sirte on Sunday headed west.

Gadhafi has called the abandonment of other cities to the rebels a case of “tactical retreat.” Fighting has continued in western Libya, in cities like Misurata, where pro-government snipers have shot at residents.

Both sides have made claims during this civil war that have turned out untrue in the end, so we should not automatically accept the statement of a takeover of Sirte until there’s some independent verification. But both the UK Telegraph and ABC in Australia are running the same report. And the Reuters reporter in Sirte saw the convoy of vehicles leaving the city.

The apparent victory in Sirte came after massive nighttime bombing of the city by the NATO-led coalition. This shows the military operation moving into a new phase of tactical air support and not enforcement of any no-fly zone to protect civilians. It’s not like Gadhafi’s military forces were threatening massacres while leaving the city to the rebels.

If Gadhafi is having his military retrench to the west, he could be trying to lay a trap for the poorly trained, ragtag rebel force. But they do have the coalition airstrikes to contend with – and they are systematically taking out Gadhafi’s armor.

The US Navy has reduced the firepower arrayed against Gadhafi, with one of the ships from which missiles have been launched leaving the area. NATO’s command role doesn’t mean US involvement will cease – indeed in many key ways NATO is effectively the United States military – but the reduction, coming right before a speech to the nation by President Obama on the situation, is meant to portray a pullback.

Both Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates intimated on yesterday’s morning talk shows that the Gadhafi regime may be vulnerable to collapse from within as key officials abandon the longtime Libyan leader. But this could be nothing more than disinformation.

UPDATE: Agence-France Presse says that Gadhafi loyalists used machine gun fire to repel the attack on Sirte, and the rebels have pulled back to Bin Jawad.