TRIPOLI, (Reuters) – Libyan rebel forces were converging on Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte yesterday, hoping to deliver the coup de grace of their revolution but uncertain if the fallen strongman was holed up there.
The fugitive Gaddafi’s exact whereabouts where still not known and it was possible he was still in hiding in Tripoli, five days after it fell to rebel forces and his 42-year-old reign collapsed.
NATO war planes struck at Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast, for a third day yesterday, a spokesman for the multi-national alliance said in Brussels.
“We’re paying close attention to what’s happening in Sirte because we know that there are remnants of the regime that are there,” the spokesman said.
On the ground, rebel forces also closed in and said they would seize Sirte by force if negotiations for its surrender failed.
Gaddafi was born near Sirte, 450 km (300 miles) east of Tripoli, in 1942 and after he seized power in 1969 he built it up from a sleepy fishing village into an important city and power center of 100,000 people.
He still retains support and sympathy there, so whether or not he has chosen to retreat to the city to make a last stand, its capture will still be strategically and symbolically important to the rebels as they consolidate their victory.
One rebel commander said his forces were within 100 km (60 miles) of Sirte from the east and others were advancing from the west.
On the coastal highway east of Tripoli, tank transporters were carrying Soviet-designed T-55 tanks in the direction of Sirte. Rebels said the tanks were seized from an abandoned military base in Zlitan.
Jamal Tunally, a rebel military commander in Misrata, told Reuters: “The front line is 30 km 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 underneath Bab al-Aziziyah like a rat,” said Tunally, referring to Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli which rebels overran on Tuesday.
In the east, rebel fighters pushed 7 km (4 miles) past the village of Bin Jawad and secured the Nawfaliyah junction, a rebel spokesman said.
“We’re going slowly,” spokesman Mohammad Zawawi told Reuters. “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.”
In Tripoli, the rebel leadership sought to establish control after days of confusion and sporadic skirmishing with the remnants of Gaddafi’s forces. Several explosions and intermittent gunfire were heard overnight yesterday.