Libyan NTC fighters prepare for Sirte final assault
By Rory Mulholland - SIRTE (Libya)
Desperate residents fled Moamer Gathafi's hometown Sirte on Friday, as fighters of Libya's interim government probed the city's eastern outskirts in anticipation of a final assault on one of the fallen leader's two remaining bastions.
A commander of National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters near Sirte said pro-Gathafi forces were targeting residents even as they fled, with a fighter killed and a packed family car destroyed when their convoy was hit.
NATO said it was nearing the "final phase" of its air war in Libya, a day after warplanes struck just one target in an intense bombing campaign that has lasted six months.
And a commander of the new regime said a captured general loyal to Gathafi had said the fugitive Libyan leader was secretly moving around in the southern desert.
Gathafi's daughter Aisha meanwhile said that her father was well and fighting on the ground, as she attacked the country's new rulers and called them "traitors".
"Remain reassured, your great leader is doing well. He carries weapons and is fighting on the fronts" ,she said in a telephone message aired by Syria-based Arrai television, which regularly broadcasts comments from Gathafi or his family members.
"You can be proud of your leader," she said addressing the "resistant people" of Libya.
Aisha Gathafi, who fled to Algeria with her mother and two brothers late last month, called on the people to "rise" against the new rulers, saying NTC members were "traitors who have broken their oath of allegiance" toward Gathafi.
Gathafi's wife Safiya, two sons Mohammed and Hannibal and daughter Aisha escaped to Algeria on August 29. Algeria said it had allowed them in on "humanitarian grounds".
One month to the day since Gathafi's compound fell to rebels in Tripoli, the campaign to take Sirte and the ex-Libyan leader's other principal remaining bastion of Bani Walid was on hold for another day.
But commanders and fighters said they had probed the city's eastern outskirts without resistance.
"Our fighters are in control of the eastern gate of Sirte," commander Ahmed Zlitni from the operations centre said.
"They are two kilometres (1.2 miles) ahead of the gate and holding positions there. Technically we can say that we entered Sirte from the east," Zlitni said, adding that the fighters "did not face any resistance" when they crossed.
"Three to four brigades have entered through the eastern gate," confirmed commander Mohammed al-Marimi.
Asked why NTC fighters were delaying a final assault on Sirte, commander Osama Muttawa Swehly said: "We're trying to get the families out.
"We are averaging between 400 to 500 cars a day. We are basically trying to starve (the Gathafi forces) out".
He said one escape convoy had come under fire from anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms.
"One fighter was killed and one family car was destroyed", he said, with an unknown number of occupants also presumably killed.
"We are giving the families every chance to get out. Once that stream turns into a trickle then stops, then it will be time to act", he added.
Meanwhile, NTC officials announced fresh talks on Saturday on forming an interim government after a previous round failed last weekend.
One official insisted the meeting would be "decisive" and that there would be "agreement on the new government lineup".
When rebel fighters stormed and captured Gathafi's Bab al-Aziziya headquarters on August 23, they found no trace of the strongman, who has since made several broadcasts claiming he is still in Libya.
While the country's new authorities do not know where he is, they are focused on taking Sirte and Bani Walid, two places where some think he might be.
But reports also emerged that he may be in the south.
"General Belgasem al-Abaaj, who we captured on Monday, said that Gathafi had contacted him by phone about 10 days ago, and that he was moving secretly between (the oases towns of) Sabha and Ghat", an NTC commander, Mohammed Barka Wardugu, said.
Abaaj had said that Gathafi "is helped by Nigerian and Chadian mercenaries who know the desert routes," added Wardugu, spokesman for the Desert Shield Brigade.
While a full-scale assault on Bani Walid was on hold Friday, a correspondent with NTC fighters a few kilometres (miles) outside the town said clashes had erupted there early in the day.
In other developments, the UN atomic agency confirmed the existence of raw uranium in Libya after US news channel CNN reported that new regime forces had found potentially radioactive material.
International Atomic Energy Agency spokeswoman Gill Tudor said the uranium, stored by the Gathafi regime, had been declared to the agency and that it hoped to examine the material "once the situation in the country stabilises".
French oil giant Total meanwhile announced it would restart production from an offshore oil platform off Libya within days, making it the first major to return to work since the fall of Gathafi.