Hundreds of heavily armed fighters supporting the new government in Libya are closing in on the few remaining holdouts of Gaddafi loyalists. A final assault is anticipated as a deadline for pro-Gaddafi fighters to surrender lapsed.
AFP - Fighters backing Libya's new rulers fought their way Sunday to the gates of oasis town Bani Walid and were closing in on Sirte, poised for all-out assaults on deposed leader Moamer Kadhafi's remaining strongholds.
Interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil Saturday gave the green light for attacks on Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli, Sirte to the east and Sabha in the deep south after declaring the deadline for pro-Kadhafi enclaves to surrender over.
By late morning Sunday, streams of fighters backed by armoured vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft guns had massed on the edge of Bani Walid, 180 kilometres (110 miles) from Tripoli, AFP correspondents said.
The National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters said they had routed Kadhafi loyalists and snipers from Wadidinar, a valley in the shadow of Bani Walid, as they pushed towards the oasis.
"The big challenge for us was the presence of snipers in the valley," said military commander Colonel Ahmad Ali Mohammed. "But today we hope to complete our entry into Bani Walid."
A burnt pickup truck and a melted anti-aircraft gun spoke of the intensity of the fight that left four new regime fighters and four Kadhafi men dead, according to medics and rebels.
NATO warplanes were heard flying overhead.
NTC fighters were also stationed at two rear guard positions -- one on a plot of farmland turned into a military camp on the outskirts of Bani Walid and the other about 40 kilometres to the north at Wishtata, where volunteer doctors were setting up a makeshift clinic.
Another correspondent said fighters gathered from dawn in the desert in Hisha east of Misrata and began moving slowly towards Kadhafi's hometown of Sirte, 360 kilometres east of Tripoli.
The fighters were from the Misrata brigade and backed by around 200 cars including pick-up trucks mounted with light artillery and armed with Kalashnikov rifles, Grad rockets and anti-aircraft guns, the reporter said.
The fighters were sweeping villages southwest of Sirte on their way to Kadhafi's Mediterranean stronghold.
In one village, Gidahiya, villagers turned out to flash victory signs at the fighters, who pulled down the green flags of Kadhafi's regime from buildings.
Abdel Jalil arrived Saturday to a red-carpet welcome at Tripoli's Metiga military base where he was mobbed by hundreds of supporters and had to be protected by a thick human chain.
The visit, his first to Tripoli since his forces seized the city last month, was eagerly awaited in the hope that it would help tackle rivalries emerging among rebel groups that overthrew the fugitive Kadhafi.
Abdel Jalil said the NTC "has mapped out a path and we hope that Libyans understand that we have to move along this path fast and that it is no time for revenge."
"We should put all our forces together to liberate the remaining Libyan cities of Bani Walid, Sabha and Sirte," he said after declaring that the deadline for pro-Kadhafi enclaves to surrender had passed.
"Now the situation is in the hands of our revolutionary fighters," Abdel Jalil said, effectively giving commanders authority to attack Bani Walid, Sirte, Sabha and other pro-Kadhafi enclaves.
The battle for Bani Walid already got off to a fitful and unscheduled start on Friday night, but NTC fighters withdrew on Saturday, apparently in anticipation of NATO air strikes.
Abdullah Kenshil, who tried but failed to negotiate the town's surrender, said NTC fighters withdrew "for tactical reasons that could be linked to military operations that NATO might be planning."
Four NTC fighters were killed and 26 injured in clashes around Bani Walid on Saturday, said Dr Abdul Rawuf, an emergency services doctor operating a field clinic in the hamlet of Wishtata, 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the town.
A number of former regime officials, including Kadhafi spokesman Mussa Ibrahim, are believed to be holed up in Bani Walid. The whereabouts of Kadhafi himself is unknown.
Many NTC members, including half of the executive committee, moved to Tripoli after it fell late last month but Abdel Jalil and his deputy Mahmud Jibril were slow to arrive in the capital.
He is expected to tackle political tensions already surfacing between the capital Tripoli and other NTC strongholds, particularly the second-largest city Benghazi, which was the rebels' wartime base, and the third-largest city Misrata, which endured a prolonged siege by Kadhafi forces.
Anti-Kadhafi fighters in Misrata have started to challenge NTC authority, refusing to turn over abandoned tanks as requested by interim leaders.
The whereabouts of the toppled strongman remained a mystery.
The NTC fears that he may try to slip across one of Libya's porous borders.
In a defiant message on Thursday, Kadhafi dismissed as lies reports he had fled to Niger, insisting he was still in Libya. Niger has also denied that Kadhafi is on its soil.
Guinea Bissau Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior said on Saturday that Kadhafi would be welcomed "with open arms" if he sought asylum in the west African country.
Date created : 2011-09-11