Gaddafi sons broadcast confusion as battle looms

TRIPOLI/TAWARGA, Libya, (Reuters) – Muammar  Gaddafi’s sons clashed on the airwaves yesterday, with one  offering peace and another promising a ‘war of attrition’ as a  final battle for control of Libya’s coast loomed.

Saif al-Islam

The conflicting messages were the latest evidence that the  fallen leader was losing his grip on what remains of his  entourage after a six-month uprising left his 42-year rule of  the North African nation in tatters.

NATO warplanes struck at loyalist troops dug in around his  beseiged hometown of Sirte — his last stronghold along the  heavily populated Mediterranean seaboard— and refugees streamed  out fearing a bloody showdown.

A week after they overran the capital, forcing Gaddafi into  hiding, irregular troops of the new ruling council have paused  in a drive to take Sirte and Gaddafi strongholds in the desert,  giving Sirte’s defenders until Saturday to surrender. But  frontline clashes continued, as did NATO air strikes.

“We were talking about negotiations based on ending  bloodshed,” Gaddafi’s son Saadi said on al-Arabiya television,  saying he had been given his father’s blessing to negotiate with  the ruling National Transitional Council.

The head of Tripoli’s military council, Abdul Hakim  Belhadj, told Reuters he had spoken to Saadi by telephone and  had promised him decent treatment if he surrenders.
“We want to spare bloodletting, therefore negotiation and  surrender is preferable,” Belhadj said. “If this does not happen  there is no other way except a military solution.”

In a sign of turbulence within the Gaddafi clan, the former  leader’s better-known son Saif al-Islam hurled defiance at the  NATO-backed forces and said the fight would continue.

“We must wage a campaign of attrition day and night until  these lands are cleansed from these gangs and traitors,” he said  in a statement broadcast on the Syrian-owned Arrai satellite TV  channel. “We assure people that we are standing fast and the  commander is in good condition.”

He said there were 20,000 loyalist soldiers ready to defend  Sirte in the case of an attack.

Despite shortages and disruptions, people in Tripoli,  Misrata, Benghazi and other cities took to the streets to  celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday, a high point of the Muslim  calendar marking the end of the Ramadan fast. For most Libyans,  it was the first Eid they could remember without Gaddafi.

Anxious to aid — and steer — the new rulers of the  country, and to consolidate their own victory over a man who has  baffled and infuriated them for decades, Western governments  will hold a “Friends of Libya” meeting in Paris today.

The date, Sept. 1, is laden with symbolism as the  anniversary of Gaddafi’s seizure of power in 1969.

Until the 69-year-old fugitive is hunted down, dead or  alive, the transitional council’s leaders say they will not  count their country’s “liberation” as complete.

But though there is much talk of closing in on Gaddafi and  his sons, of tempting loyalists to betray them and of tracking  their communications, it is unclear where the key figures are.

Violence

Hisham Buhagiar, a senior NTC official who is coordinating  the hunt, told Reuters he believed Gaddafi was either in the  Bani Walid area, southeast of Tripoli, or in Sirte, 450 km (265  miles) east of the capital.

The arrest in Tripoli on Wednesday of Gaddafi’s foreign  minister, Abdelati Obeidi, as witnessed by a Reuters journalist  may provide more clues.

“We trace a lot of people who are not in the first inner  circle with him, but the second or third circle. We’re talking  to them,” said Buhagiar. “They want to strike deals. Everyone  who helps us is on the white list.”

Britain’s ITV News reported that British special forces    were helping in the hunt for Gaddafi. They believed he is still  in Libya and has been denied entry to Algeria, where his wife  and three of his children have taken refuge.

Troopers of the elite SAS, some working from ships off the    coast, were using round-the-clock aerial surveillance to try to    track him and his close supporters.

“When a target is identified, a Helicopter Assault Force    moves in to capture the individual who will then be interrogated   for further intelligence about Colonel Gaddafi’s movements, the   ITV report said.

While the threat of an Iraq-style insurgency led by those  loyal to the old guard is clearly a worry to the new leaders,  their international backers are also concerned that the NTC can  overcome regional, ethnic and tribal differences across Libya.

There has been praise from abroad for its pledges of  equality, fairness and willingness to bury past grievances,  though there is also disquiet at evidence of harassment, and  worse, by victorious fighters of some groups, notably black  Libyans and African migrants, widely seen as allies of Gaddafi.

At Tawarga, where anti-Gaddafi forces are dug in and  readying an assault on Sirte to the east, most of the residents  were black African rather than Arab in origin and have recently  fled — apparently in fear of reprisals by fighters from the  city of Misrata who see Tawarga as a pro-Gaddafi town.

Also fleeing their homes were hundreds of people from towns  around Sirte, who streamed through a frontline checkpoint set up  by NTC forces on the coastal highway at Tawarga.

“I need to take my family where it is peaceful,” said one  man named Mohammed, as laden vehicles flying white flags were  checked for weapons. “Here there will be a big fight.”

Ali Faraj, a fighter, said he doubted people in Sirte would  willingly join the revolt: “There will be a big fight for Sirte.  It’s a dangerous city. It’s unlikely to rise up,” he said.

“A lot of people there support Gaddafi. It’s too close to  Gaddafi and his family. It is still controlled by them.”

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