Libya's rebels squeeze Gaddafi's bastion

Libyan forces converged on Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte on Monday, hoping to seal their revolution by seizing the last bastions of a fallen but perhaps still dangerous strongman.

Gaddafi’s whereabouts have been unknown since Tripoli fell to his foes and his 42-year-old rule collapsed a week ago.

Residents in the capital, hit by shortages of food, fuel and water, ventured out to shop ahead of the Eid al-Fitr festival after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

“Thank God this Eid has a special flavour. This Eid we have freedom,” said Adel Kashad (47) an oil firm computer specialist who was at a vegetable market. “Libya has a new dawn.”

Gunfire echoed occasionally across Tripoli as residents picked up their lives amid the stink of burning rubbish and aid agencies reported a revival of medical and other services.

Rejoicing at Gaddafi’s fall is not universal, however.

“You media don’t tell the truth, you’re all traitors, spies,” shouted an enraged taxi driver in a loyalist district, not caring that anti-Gaddafi fighters were nearby.

A threat to the world
Gaddafi strongholds in Sirte and some towns deep in the southern desert remain a challenge for Libya’s new rulers, who have vowed to take them by force, if negotiations fail.

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairperson of the National Transitional Council (NTC), asked Nato to pursue its five-month-old air campaign, which has given essential firepower to ragtag rebels who rose against Gaddafi in February.

“I call for continued protection from Nato and its allies from this tyrant,” he said in Qatar, a tiny but wealthy Gulf Arab state that has backed the revolt.
“He is still a threat, not just for Libyans but for the entire world.”

Abdel Jalil was speaking at a meeting of defence ministers from countries that have supported the anti-Gaddafi movement.

A Nato commander pledged to pursue the alliance’s mission, at least until its internal mandate expires on September 27.

“We believe the Gaddafi regime is near collapse, and we’re committed to seeing the operation through to its conclusion,” US Admiral Samuel Locklear, who heads Nato’s Joint Operations Command, told a news conference in the Qatari capital, Doha.

Nato warplanes struck at Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast, for a third day on Sunday, a Nato spokesperson said in Brussels. Britain said its aircraft also attacked artillery fired by Gaddafi forces near Sidra, west of the oil town of Ras Lanuf.

Tribal support
Whether or not Gaddafi makes a last stand in Sirte, the city is a strategic and symbolic prize for Libya’s new rulers as they tighten their grip on the vast North African country.

The NTC has offered a $1.3-million reward and amnesty from prosecution for anyone who kills or captures Gaddafi.

Its forces have advanced towards Sirte from east and west, even as contacts continue for its surrender.

Jamal Tunally, a commander in Misrata, to the west, told Reuters: “The front line is 30km from Sirte. We think the Sirte situation will be resolved peacefully, God willing.”

“Now we just need to find Gaddafi. I think he is still hiding beneath Bab al-Aziziya like a rat,” he said, referring to Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound, which was overrun last Tuesday.

On the coastal highway east of Tripoli, transporters carried Soviet-designed T-55 tanks towards Sirte.

Libyan forces advancing from the east pushed past the village of Bin Jawad and secured the Nawfaliya junction, a spokesperson said. “We’re going slowly,” Mohammad Zawawi added.

“We want to give more time for negotiations, to give a chance for those people trying to persuade the people inside Sirte to surrender and open their city.”

‘There will be blood’
NTC spokesperson Shamsiddin Abdulmolah said most people in Sirte were against Gaddafi. “But it’s the minority of Gaddafi loyalists who have the weapons,” he said. “They’re using all kinds of scare tactics but it’s a losing strategy.”

Marwan Mustapha, an ambulance worker at Nawfaliya, said: “God willing, the rebels will enter the city without bloodshed and the negotiations will have succeeded. But if they have to enter by force, there will be blood.”

In the desert to the south, Gaddafi loyalists are also holding out. NTC military chief Suleiman al-Obeidi said pro-Gaddafi commanders in the city of Sabha had been in touch. But a spokesperson for the NTC, Mahmoud Shamman, said there would be no negotiations with “killers and executioners”.

Mindful of preserving their image to the world and stung by accounts that captured Gaddafi loyalists have been found dead with their hands tied behind their backs, NTC leaders sent a text message urging followers not to abuse prisoners.

“Remember when you arrest any follower of Gaddafi that he is like you, that he has dignity like you, that his dignity is your own dignity, and that it is enough humiliation for him that he is already a prisoner,” it said.

Trail of corpses
NTC military spokesperson Colonel Ahmed Bani has said around 40 000 people detained by Gaddafi forces remain missing, saying some might still be held in underground bunkers in Tripoli.

The Khamis Brigade, a military unit commanded by and named after one of Gaddafi’s sons, appears to have killed dozens of detainees in a warehouse in a neighbourhood adjoining the Yarmouk military base south of Tripoli last week, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said.

Three days later the warehouse, used as a makeshift prison, was set on fire but the cause was unknown. HRW said it had seen the charred skeletal remains of about 45 smouldering bodies on Saturday. At least two more corpses lay outside unburned.

The NTC, recognised as Libya’s legitimate authority by more than 40 nations, has sought to establish control in Tripoli after days of chaos and clashes with diehard Gaddafi loyalists.

The council, whose leaders plan to move to Tripoli from Benghazi this week, is trying to impose security, restore basic services and revive the energy-based economy.

‘Day of freedom’
The chief executive of Italian oil firm Eni, the largest foreign oil producer in Libya before the conflict, met officials in Benghazi on Monday and agreed a formal deal to restart its oil and gas operations as soon as possible.

Paolo Scaroni was the first oil chief to visit Libya since Gaddafi’s fall, in a move widely seen as an effort to secure Eni’s stake in Libya, a former Italian colony which has Africa’s biggest oil reserves.

Under the deal signed on Monday, Eni, keen to make up for hesitant Italian support for the uprising in its early stages, will supply refined oil products to the NTC to meet the immediate needs of the Libyan people.

Other countries are also seeking to forge good relations. Britain said several of its diplomats were in Tripoli to prepare for the eventual reopening of its embassy.

The reopening of the main border crossing from Tunisia on Sunday should help relieve shortfalls in the Libyan capital.

Many in the capital were stoical ahead of the Eid holiday, however. Zeid al-Akari (60) was shopping at a Tripoli market. He said: “It’s ok if we have shortages, if we have to sacrifice for this day, which is a day of freedom.”—Reuters

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