Libya conflict: anti-Gaddafi forces threaten Bani Walid

An anti-Gaddafi fighter receives a flag with the colours of the interim government in Tarhouna, 70 km (40 miles) north of Bani Walid, 3 September 2011 Fighters have moved in on Bani Walid from three sides

Hundreds of troops loyal to Libya's interim government are closing in on one of ousted leader Col Muammar Gaddafi's few remaining strongholds.

Fighters have moved on Bani Walid from three sides, warning Gaddafi loyalists to surrender or be attacked.

One key anti-Gaddafi fighter told the BBC he expected the standoff to be resolved on Monday morning.

There have been rumours two Gaddafi sons had travelled through the town and some family members may still be there.

On Saturday, the head of Libya's interim governing NTC said its soldiers were also laying siege to Col Gaddafi's birthplace in Sirte, as well as Jufra and Sabha.

National Transitional Council Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil said the pro-Gaddafi bastions were being given humanitarian aid, but had one week to surrender "to avoid further bloodshed".

Tripoli move delayed

Bani Walid is 150km (95 miles) south-east of Tripoli and one commander said anti-Gaddafi forces were closing in on the town from the north, east and west.

At the scene

Anti-Gaddafi forces are closing in on Bani Walid from Tripoli to the north, as well as the east and south in an attempt to seal off any potential escape routes from the town. There are many "technicals" - artillery guns mounted on the back of flat-bed jeeps - lining the roads.

It is unclear whether there is a deadline for Gaddafi loyalists inside the town to give themselves up or face attack, or whether local tribe elders are being given time to negotiate a peaceful resolution.

Some people remain convinced that Saif al-Islam and Mutassim Gaddafi - who are said to have passed through Bani Walid as they fled the invasion of Tripoli - remain inside Bani Walid.

But it is difficult to imagine why they would allow themselves to be trapped, as Gaddafi forces still control Sabha, to the south.

"We are now on the border of Bani Walid, between Tarhouna and Bani Walid," Moftah Mohammed said. "We are coordinating with the rebels from Misrata. God willing, we are hoping to enter the town today or tomorrow."

Anti-Gaddafi fighters told the BBC's Ian Pannell they were talking to former military officers still in Bani Walid who are seeking assurances that they would receive fair treatment and trial for alleged abuses during the uprising if they were to lay down their weapons.

In particular, they are concerned over reprisals for the killing of demonstrators in April or May.

Early reports suggested that Saif al-Islam and Mutassim Gaddafi had holed up in the desert town surrounded by armed supporters, and were ready to make a final stand there.

But the anti-Gaddafi fighters told our correspondent they had intelligence that Saif al-Islam had left Bani Walid on Saturday.

Analysts say it is important for the new national army to consolidate its control of all of the country to allow it to form a meaningful new government and to remove the threat from the old regime. Taking Bani Walid is key to that.

Col Gaddafi is reputed to have a lots of support there, though the town is mixed in its make-up. It is a stronghold for the Warfalla tribe. In a defiant audio message on 1 September, the fugitive leader referred to it as "an armed fortress".

The NTC may have made inroads in parts of Bani Walid - one rebel commander claimed recently that 80% of its residents had turned against Col Gaddafi - but the country's sprawling south could provide cover, as well as an escape route across the desert.

Col Gaddafi's whereabouts remain unconfirmed; his spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told Reuters in a telephone interview that the ousted leader was somewhere in Libya, safely surrounded by loyal supporters.

Finding the Gaddafis

  • Muammar Gaddafi, sons Saif al-Islam, Saadi and Mutassim: Whereabouts unknown
  • Sons Muhammad and Hannibal, daughter Aisha and wife Safia: Fled to Algeria
  • Sons Saif al-Arab and Khamis: Reported killed

Meanwhile, the NTC is stepping up its efforts at reconstruction, setting up a supreme security council to protect Tripoli.

But it has said its leadership will not now move from Benghazi to Tripoli until next week, with Mr Jalil the last to go.

This could mean a delay in the opposition formally assuming the role of the new government and raise fears of a power vacuum in the capital, correspondents say.

Ian Martin, a special adviser to the UN secretary general, arrived in Libya's capital on Saturday to try to boost international efforts in the country's redevelopment.

In a sign of tension over the new government of Libya, a key Islamist military commander who helped defend Benghazi, has called on all of the NTC heads to resign.

Ismail al-Salabi told Reuters: "The role of the executive committee is no longer required because they are remnants of the old regime. They should all resign, starting from the head of the pyramid all the way down."

However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Sunday that members of the former Gaddafi-led government should "unconditionally be a part of the process of national reconciliation".

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