Libya fighters amass near pro-Gaddafi town

WISHTATA, Libya, (Reuters) – – Libya’s new rulers  sent a column of extra fighters towards the tribal bastion of  Bani Walid overnight, preparing a showdown with supporters of  ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi, possibly including his sons or  even Gaddafi himself.

Gaddafi, in a call to a Syrian-owned TV station yesterday,  vowed continued resistance to the rebels and NATO and said a  military convoy that entered neighbouring Niger this week,  fueling speculation he might be about to flee, was “not the  first”.

“Columns of convoys drive into and out of Niger carrying  goods and people inside and outside (of Libya) say Gaddafi is  going to Niger,” he said in the call that Arrai TV reported was  made from within Libya.

“This is not the first time that convoys drive in and out of  Niger.”

Gaddafi’s whereabouts have been a mystery since rebel  fighters stormed his Tripoli headquarters two weeks ago. Bani  Walid, one of the few towns still in the hands of his followers,  has refused to surrender despite a stand-off lasting days.

Officials from the interim ruling National Transitional  Council said they had sent reinforcements after reports that  Gaddafi had issued a call for the town to fight.

Reuters reporters saw a convoy of NTC forces pickup trucks  heading towards Bani Walid with dozens of fighters clutching  RPGs and shouting anti-Gaddafi slogans.

“We will move into Bani Walid slowly. There was a message in  Bani Walid from Gaddafi this evening,” NTC unit commander Jamal  Gourji said.

“He was rallying his troops and calling on people to fight.  He is hiding in a hole in the ground, like Iraq,” he said, in a  reference to late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, captured hiding  in a hole nine months after he was toppled in 2003.

Outside the town on Wednesday residents leaving through a  sun-scorched NTC checkpoint at the nearby settlement of Wishtata  painted an increasingly desperate picture.

“People are terrorised,” said Salah Ali, 39. “But many still  support Gaddafi because they were paid by the regime, because  many have committed crimes and are afraid of arrest.”

Aid agencies have raised concerns about humanitarian  conditions there and in the few other cities still under control  of Gaddafi loyalists. Communications with them have been cut.

The NTC has sent envoys to neighbouring Niger to try to stop  Gaddafi and his entourage evading justice by fleeing across a  desert frontier toward friendly African states. A convoy arrived  in Niger this week, but Niger says Gaddafi was not in it.

“We’re asking every country not to accept him. We want these  people for justice,” Fathi Baja, the head of political affairs  for the National Transitional Council (NTC), told Reuters in  Benghazi, saying the ousted leader may be close to the Niger or  Algerian borders, waiting for an opportunity to slip across.

“He’s looking for a chance to leave,” Baja said.

Another senior NTC official said Gaddafi was tracked this  week to an area in the empty Sahara of Libya’s south.

But NTC officials near Bani Walid in the north said they  believed two of Gaddafi’s sons and possibly the leader himself  were inside the town.

“That would explain why Bani Walid is resisting,” NTC  negotiator Abdallah Kanshil said of reports of Gaddafi’s  presence in the town. “His two sons are definitely there.”

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