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.
GADDAFI “UNDER SIEGE”
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.