Libya rebels say “close in” on Gaddafi

TRIPOLI, (Reuters) – Libyan rebels claimed to be  close to capturing Muammar Gaddafi yesterday as their NATO  backers bombed diehard loyalists in his tribal bastion, but  there was no sign of an end to the war, or to international  wrangling over Libya’s riches.

Leaders of the National Transitional Council, which has  Western support, pressed foreign governments to release Libyan  funds frozen abroad, warning of its urgent need to impose order  and provide services to a population traumatised by six months  of conflict and 42 years of eccentric, personal rule.

But Gaddafi’s long-time allies in Africa, beneficiaries of  his oil-fueled largesse and sympathisers with a foreign policy  he called anti-colonial, offered the fugitive strongman a grain  of comfort and irked the rebels by refusing to follow Arab and  Western powers in recognising the NTC as the legal government.

Combined with the reluctance of major powers like China,  Russia and Brazil, to see Europeans and Americans dominate a  nation with Africa’s biggest oil reserves, the African Union’s  resistance may slow the pace at which funds are released.

Mahmoud Jibril, head of the government in waiting, said time  was short. Visiting NATO member Turkey, he said: “We have to  establish an army, strong police force to be able meet the needs  of the people and we need capital and we need the assets.”

“All our friends in the international community speak of  stability and security. We need that too.”

Rebel fighters took control of the main border post  along the coastal road to Tunisia after clashes with pro-Gaddafi  figthers, reopening a path for humanitarian aid and other  supplies from Tunisia to Tripoli.

While many African states have recognised the NTC, the AU  would not do so as long as fighting continued, South African  President Jacob Zuma, a vocal advocate for Gaddafi, said after a  meeting in Addis Ababa at which the AU called for all sides in  the conflict to negotiate peace and work for democracy.

Rebel leaders are determined to show they are in charge,  though estimates vary of when the NTC will move formally from  its Benghazi base in the east to the war zone that is Tripoli.

“We have come to operate the country. We are now the legal  authority,” declared Mohammed al-Alagi, a lawyer who has been  the NTC’s justice minister for some months, as he met foreign  journalists in the capital wearing a rebel flag as a bandana.

Other NTC leaders, who stress they want to work with other  rebel groups which sprang up later in the west as well with  those who have previously supported Gaddafi, say the war will  only be over once the fallen leader is caught, “dead or alive”.  Alagi voiced confidence that Gaddafi and his entourage of  sons and aides was surrounded and would soon be captured: “The  area where he is now is under siege,” he told Reuters, while  declining to say where in Tripoli he thought Gaddafi was. “The  rebels are monitoring the area and they are dealing with it.”

Similar confidence has proved misplaced since the irregular  armies overran Gaddafi’s compound on Tuesday, however, and  analysts do not rule out that the 69-year-old, a veteran master  of surprise, might have slipped away to rally supporters for an  insurgency.
He has not been seen in public for two months, but  made a defiant audio broadcast on Thursday.

Colonel Hisham Buhagiar of the rebel force in the capital  said Libyan commandos were targeting several areas: “We are  sending special forces every day to hunt down Gaddafi. We have  one unit that does intelligence and other units that hunt him.”

Rebel fighters in the city, who come from all over a country  fragmented by tribal and regional divisions, have been placed  under the unified command of a military council in an effort to  streamline operations, Tripoli’s top rebel commander said.

NATO forces, notably from France and Britain, are helping  the rebels. Many analysts assume they are giving intelligence  and may have their own special forces troops on the ground.

Despite sporadic gunfire as rebel fighters tried to take  pockets of loyalist resistance, Tripoli was quieter than in  recent days. Dead bodies, the stench of rotting garbage in the  oppressive summer heat, wrecked cars and the other detritus of  war were evidence of frantic battles and wildly erratic firing.

Some of Tripoli’s two million people, suffering from power  cuts, dwindling supplies and a critical shortage of medical  supplies and healthcare, ventured out to local mosques, some  praying Gaddafi can be found by Monday, when Muslims mark the  end of the fasting month of Ramadan with the festival of Eid.

“Gaddafi is the biggest criminal and dictator and we hope we  will find him before the end of Ramadan,” said Milad Abu Aisha,  a 60-year-old pensioner who joined friends at his local mosque  for traditional worship on the last Friday of Ramadan.

“It will be the happiest Eid in 42 years,” said Mohammed  al-Misrati, a 52-year-old office worker who was among hundreds  streaming toward the mosque under the protection of armed local  men who have formed ad hoc security units across the capital.  “We have a taste of freedom after 42 years of repression.”

A detachment of the rebel force was turning its  attention to Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace 450 km (300 miles) east  of the capital, where British aircraft had fired cruise missiles  at a headquarters bunker.

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