Gaddafi forces won't budge as deadline expires

The deadline for forces loyal to ousted Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi to surrender expired on Saturday, with fighters of the country’s new leadership poised to attack hold-out strongholds.

After fierce clashes on Friday in Bani Walid, a Gaddafi bastion south east of Tripoli, an Agence France-Presse reporter on the town’s eastern front at Sedata some 60km south of Misrata could hear distant artillery fire.

Nato aircraft could also be heard overhead, he said.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) set Saturday as the deadline for towns still loyal to Gaddafi to surrender and on-off talks have been going on for days over Bani Walid.

A number of former regime officials, including Gaddafi’s spokesperson Mussa Ibrahim, are believed to be holed up there.

NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil arrived in the port city of Misrata while en route for his first visit to Tripoli since the fighters of the new leadership captured the capital.

Abdel Jalil told AFP his visit to Tripoli from NTC headquarters in Benghazi was “temporary” and that the council he heads would move to Tripoli “after the [full] liberation” of Libya.

‘Fierce resistance’
An AFP correspondent said Abdel Jalil was due to give a news conference in Misrata, a city which suffered a lengthy siege by pro-Gaddafi forces that was lifted only in August.

On another front near Bani Walid, NTC forces were massing some 30km from the town, another AFP reporter said.

Fighters returning from the front reported clashes between NTC “sleeper cells” and pro-Gaddafi forces in and near Bani Walid overnight and said they were reinforcing advance positions amid “fierce resistance” from diehards.

According to chief NTC negotiator Abdullah Kenshil, “the attack will take place, but its timing will be decided by military leaders on the ground”.

On Friday, a top NTC commander said “decisive military action” was imminent.

“Up to now these negotiations did not lead to positive results,” said Salem Jeha—a highly influential member of Misrata’s military council—just hours ahead of the midnight deadline.

“If the negotiations fail then there will be decisive action, decisive military action,” Jeha, a former colonel in Gaddafi’s army, said from the NTC military headquarters in Misrata.

“But where this military action takes place that is a surprise. We are in position and we can move in any direction and this is our strength.”

Further clashes
On Friday ahead of the deadline, fighting erupted in Bani Walid as pro-NTC elements inside the town clashed with Gaddafi forces.

Reports said one “revolutionary” fighter was killed and four wounded, and there were three deaths among pro-Gaddafi forces.

An NTC commander said earlier that “fierce fighting between our forces and pro-Gaddafi ones were under way in sectors very close” to Bani Walid.

Columns of smoke and the crump of shelling could be heard by journalists outside Bani Walid as convoys carrying fighters and ammunition headed for the town 170km from Tripoli.

On the road to Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, rebels who had captured Red Valley, 60km to the east on Thursday, were under counter attack, an AFP correspondent reported.

Speaking for the first time from Tripoli since it was captured on August 23, de facto premier Mahmud Jibril on Thursday refused to speculate on Gaddafi’s whereabouts but acknowledged the conflict would end only with his capture or “elimination”.

The NTC fears Gaddafi will try to slip across one of Libya’s porous borders.

In a defiant message on Thursday, Gaddafi dismissed as lies reports he had fled to Niger, insisting he was still in Libya.

Niger, which has also denied that he is there, vowed to respect international commitments if wanted former Libyan officials enter its territory.

“We are not talking about Gaddafi but about those who are already in Niger,” Justice Minister Marou Amadou told AFP, insisting that “we do not know” the fugitive’s whereabouts.

Niamey earlier confirmed having allowed in a dozen Gaddafi aides, including internal security chief Mansour Daw, for “humanitarian reasons.”

They are being held under house arrest in Niamey.

On Friday, a source from Niger’s ethnic Tuareg community in Niamey said a number of Libyan generals loyal to Gaddafi are now in Burkina Faso after transiting Niger.

Interpol issued a “red notice” for the arrest of Gaddafi, his son Seif al-Islam and his intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi after the International Criminal Court (ICC) asked for the global police agency’s help.

Loyalists flee Libya
A travel agency head said a dozen vehicles had arrived Friday via Arlit escorted by Niger troops.

A security source said they contained associates of Gaddafi, without specifying identities or numbers, while a local journalist said a dozen vehicles had left for the capital Niamey.

Niger vowed Friday to respect international commitments if wanted Libyans enter its territory but denied Gaddafi was among senior officials of the toppled regime already within its borders.

Amadou confirmed three Gaddafi-era generals, including his air force chief Al-Rifi Ali al-Sharif, arrived in Agadez in northern Niger on Thursday night.

The other two were Ali Khana, a Gaddafi bodyguard and chief of the forces in Awbari in southern Libya and Mahammed Abydalkarem, commander of the military in Murzuq, also in the south.

Sources in Agadez said on Saturday they were confined to a luxury hotel in the town under military police guard.

A source from Niger’s ethnic Tuareg community said Friday a number of pro-Gaddafi generals and senior officials had passed through Niger into Burkina Faso three or four weeks ago.

A senior official in Ouagadougou denied the report.

At least two convoys of Libyan vehicles crossed into Niger in recent days, sparking speculation that Gaddafi might have slipped out of Libya and was on his way to either Niamey or Ouagadougou.

Gaddafi not in Niger
Niger’s Prime Minister Brigi Rafini, in Burkina Faso on Thursday for talks with President Blaise Compaore, denied Gaddafi was in his country.

The ousted strongman himself also dismissed reports Thursday that he fled to Niger.

Niger has confirmed having allowed in a dozen Gaddafi aides, including his internal security chief Mansour Daw, for “humanitarian reasons”.

They are being held under house arrest in Niamey, in a tightly guarded state-owned villa on the banks of the Niger River.

In Libya interim justice minister Mohammed al-Allagy said Friday an extradition request would be sent to Niger for the former regime officials there.

NTC spokesperson Jalal al-Gallal told AFP that Niger, with its porous borders and cash-strapped economy, remains an easy escape route for remnants of Gaddafi’s regime or even the fugitive strongman himself.

He urged countries, particularly Libya’s neighbours, not to facilitate the escape of former regime officials or Gaddafi by providing a safe haven.

“These people are convicted criminals. We are discovering mass graves every day,” he said.—AFP