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.”