NATO warplanes targeted the Gaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid Saturday as opposition forces surrounded the desert town, marking the end of the deadline they had imposed on Gaddafi loyalists for a negotiated surrender.
REUTERS - Libyan fighters trying to capture one of Muammar Gaddafi's last strongholds battled into the desert town of Bani Walid on Saturday against stiff resistance from Gaddafi loyalists.
But after advancing to within 500 metres (yards) from the town centre, some forces of Libya's Transitional National Council (NTC) pulled back shortly before NATO warplanes carried out at least five strikes on Gaddafi positions around the town.
"Field commanders have told us to retreat because NATO will be bombing soon," fighter Abdul Mulla Mohamed said, driving away in one of dozens of vehicles leaving Bani Walid, 150 km (95 miles) southeast of Tripoli.
A NATO spokesman in Brussels earlier denied reports that the Western alliance had warned NTC fighters to withdraw ahead of air strikes, saying it had no contacts with the NTC.
Artillery explosions echoed across a rocky valley in the town's northern outskirts and a rocket fired by Gaddafi loyalists landed in the hills, kicking up clouds of dust.
"We are not far from liberating Bani Walid," Daw Saleheen, a representative of the NTC's military council, said earlier. "We urge Gaddafi fighters to lay down their weapons. You can go to any house and will be safe. It is not too late."
Two NTC commanders were killed and two wounded in the fighting. Doctors said two Gaddafi soldiers and one NTC fighter were killed on Friday. Abdullah Kanshil, an NTC official, said four or five civilians had died in overnight fighting.
Kanshil said about 1,000 Gaddafi soldiers were defending the town -- far more than the 150 previously estimated.
"They are launching Grad rockets from private houses so NATO (warplanes) cannot do anything about it," he said.
Twisted metal and wrecked vehicles littered an olive grove near Bani Walid, evidence of the ferocity of Friday's clashes.
Ambulances streamed back and forth from the front line. NTC snipers lay on hilltops, responding nervously to any sign of movement in the sun-baked valleys around them.
Heavy fighting erupted around Bani Walid and the coastal city of Sirte, Gaddafi's birthplace, on Friday, a day ahead of a deadline for a negotiated surrender set by the NTC.
NTC officials said the truce was effectively over, paving the way for what could prove the final battles of a civil war that evolved from February's popular uprising against Gaddafi.
Now that his 42-year rule has ended, diplomats said Britain plans to submit a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council early next week to start easing sanctions against Libya and establish a modest U.N. mission in the country.
But NTC forces which finally overran the Libyan capital on Aug. 23 must still capture Bani Walid, Sirte and the Gaddafi-held town of Sabha in the far south, as well as find the deposed leader, before they can declare Libya liberated and set the clock ticking for elections and a new constitution.
The front lines around Sirte appeared to be quieter after Friday's fighting. The NTC has been sending hundreds of fighters south towards Sabha in the last two days.
It is not known whether Gaddafi, wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, is holed up in any of the three main strongholds his loyalists still control.
In a defiant message broadcast on Thursday, Gaddafi said he was still in Libya to lead the fight against what he called "rats" and "stray dogs" who had taken over the capital.
Niger escape route
Niger, which has taken in several of Gaddafi's fugitive aides and generals, said it would respect its commitments to the international court if Gaddafi or his sons arrived.
A convoy of 12 Libyan vehicles and two Nigerian military vehicles left Niger's northern city of Agadez in the direction of Niamey on Friday afternoon, a Reuters witness said.
The convoy was believed to contain a group of 14 former Gaddafi officials, including General Ali Kana and General Ali Sharif al-Rifi, that had reached Agadez on Thursday.
Profile of Muammar Gaddafi
Hisham Buhagiar, the military coordinator of the NTC's hunt for Gaddafi, said on Friday he had indications his quarry was in or near the town of Birak, some 700 km south of Tripoli. NATO forces had bombed the area late on Thursday, he said.
"We thought he was in Birak. I saw NATO heavily bombed Birak. They're following the same trail," he said.
He said he would move to Sabha, near Birak, within two days to pursue the chase. Gaddafi is said to rely on loyal tribes to protect him in the south, where the NTC has little sway.
Sabha has been isolated from the rest of Libya since soon after Tripoli fell. Little information has emerged from the town of 100,000, home to many sub-Saharan African migrants.
"We are not seeing many people leaving. How can they?" Khalid al-Riahi, an NTC commander outside Sabha, told Reuters by phone. "They have no money, they can't afford to buy fuel, which is scarce and more expensive. The city is too remote to have regular supplies and the road is not safe at all."
While the NTC seeks to extend its territorial grip on Libya, some signs of political discontent have emerged in Tripoli where disparate military factions are jostling for influence and in Benghazi, the eastern cradle of the revolt.
Hundreds of people marched from a charred former Gaddafi compound in Benghazi on Friday night criticising what they called "climbers" and "opportunists" in the NTC leadership, many of whom are defectors who once served under Gaddafi.
"Some of the executive committee (cabinet) are blood-suckers and thieves ... They should be in court," said one protester, an auditor who gave his name only as Shukri.
A memorandum signed by 56 political organisations, mostly from eastern Libya, also decried an NTC roadmap for governance in a post-Gaddafi era, saying it "does not express the desires of the street nor the wishes of the liberal people".