Libya forces extend Sirte surrender deadline

A Libyan rebel walks towards a camel at an advanced position near Al-Sadaadi on the road between Misrata and Sirte on August 31, 2011 Anti-Gaddafi forces have encircled the colonel's hometown of Sirte

Anti-Gaddafi forces have extended a deadline for loyalists to surrender peacefully in the Libyan city of Sirte.

The authorities had threatened a full military assault for Saturday, but officials say they will allow loyalists another week to negotiate a settlement.

Fighters have encircled Sirte, one of the last places under the control of forces loyal to Col Muammar Gaddafi.

Meanwhile senior diplomats are meeting in Paris for a major international conference on Libya's future.

Members of Libya's interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), are at the meeting, hosted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The NTC is likely to ask Western diplomats for their continued help in security matters, as well as their advice on a future transition to democracy.

Divided inner circle

The NTC controls most of the country, after a dramatic assault on Tripoli last week in which the capital fell after an operation co-ordinated with Nato airstrikes.

Fugitive ex-leader Col Gaddafi has not been seen in public for months, with rumours spreading that he has taken refuge in Sirte, Bani Walid or Sabha - the only three places still loyal to him.

NTC: Diplomacy and finance

  • Key countries yet to recognise NTC government: Algeria; Brazil; China; India; Iran; Kenya; Pakistan; Saudi Arabia; South Africa; Venezuela; Zimbabwe
  • Assets released: US - $1.5bn; UK - $1.5bn in dinar bank notes; France - $2.16bn
  • Major assets still frozen: Canada - $2.4bn; France - $11bn; Germany - $7bn; Italy - $8bn; UK - $19bn; US - $34bn

Sirte, the colonel's birthplace and the home of his tribe, is the main target for the NTC fighters stationed east and west of the city.

They have staked out an approach from the south as they aim to force Gaddafi loyalists to surrender.

Tribal elders have been negotiating with both sides to avoid bloodshed in the city.

Correspondents say the elders now accept that the NTC has won the battle for control of the country, but they have not yet persuaded the most zealous Gaddafi loyalists to surrender.

Local NTC official Hasan Banai told the BBC that his forces would give the talks another week.

Another NTC spokesman Mohammad Zawawi told Reuters news agency that the deadline had been extended because there had been progress in the negotiations.

The BBC's Paul Wood, near Ras Lanuf, says the message has also been broadcast on local radio, but it remains to be seen whether fighters on the ground will be happy to wait for another week.

The strength and resolve of the remaining Gaddafi loyalists is unclear, and his inner circle appears to be divided.

In separate audio messages played on Arabic TV channels on Wednesday, two of his sons gave conflicting accounts of their intentions.

Saif al-Islam said he would fight to the death; his brother Saadi said he was negotiating with the rebels to avoid bloodshed.

Earlier in the week, Col Gaddafi's wife, two of his sons and his daughter fled to neighbouring Algeria.

And Algerian media reported that Col Gaddafi had also tried to seek refuge there.

According to a report in El Watan newspaper, the colonel tried to speak to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika from the desert town of Ghadamis, just on the Libyan side of the border, but the Algerian leader refused to take the telephone call.

Assets unfrozen

But world leaders and the NTC are already planning for a Libya without the Gaddafis.

Delegates at the Paris meeting are expected to discuss plans for the transition to democracy, for reconstruction and issues such as enhancing the training of police.

The NTC is expected to press for a further unfreezing of assets, but its delegates will also stress that it does not want any lessening of Nato support as it tries to quell the remaining loyalist pockets.

The EU announced on Thursday that it had lifted sanctions on 28 entities - including oil firms and port authorities - to help the NTC get the economy moving again. The decision will take effect on Friday.

The UK, US and France have unfrozen more than $5bn (£3bn) in Libyan assets this week, and other countries are making similar moves.

On the diplomatic front, Russia is the latest nation to agree to recognise the NTC as Libya's legitimate government.

About 60 countries are attending the "Friends of Libya" forum in Paris on Thursday afternoon, along with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The meeting comes on the 42nd anniversary of Col Gaddafi's emergence as the leader of the coup that overthrew King Idris.

Map of Libya

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