Libyan Fighters Tighten Noose Around Qaddafi Holdout Towns

Libyan Fighters Slowly Tighten Noose Around Holdout Towns
National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters flash the V-sign for victory as they prepare to raid a house in search for activists suspected of belonging to a pro-Qaddafi underground group in Tripoli's flashpoint Abu Slim neighborhood on Sept. 6. Photographer: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

Forces from the Libyan National Transitional Council claimed control of a town near Muammar Qaddafi’s birthplace of Sirte even as the elusive leader taunted them in an audio recording and said he was still in the country.

The fighters moved into Waddan, 225 kilometers (140 miles) south of Sirte, a member of the NTC forces, Farouk Ben Hamida, said in an interview yesterday. The area around Waddan has been the focus of bombing by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which said 20 targets have been destroyed around the nearby town of Hun since Sept. 2.

Since Qaddafi’s opponents took control of Tripoli, the capital, last month, the transitional authorities have been trying to restore stability and make plans to build a functioning government. They’ve been unable to proclaim a full victory because of their inability to find Qaddafi and enter the few remaining towns that are home to some still loyal to him.

“NATO will be defeated because its financial resources are not sufficient to continue bombing Libya,” Qaddafi said in an audio recording from Syria’s Arrai television that was rebroadcast by Al Arabiya.

More than six months of fighting to end Qaddafi’s 42-year rule have reduced oil output and disrupted power supplies in the country with Africa’s largest crude reserves.

Libya’s new leaders will be reevaluating about $150 billion in contracts with international companies that were under way when the conflict began, according to U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz.

Scrutinizing Contracts

The NTC has said that, while it intends to honor many of the contracts, it “will have to go back, review them, see which ones are operative, see which ones have to be redone, see which ones have to be discarded completely,” Cretz said in remarks at the National Press Club in Washington.

The NTC is in talks with tribal elders for their forces to peacefully enter Sirte and the loyalist-held town of Sabha, the site of a major military base south of the capital. Negotiations with elders in Bani Walid for NTC fighters to take control in the loyalist-held town have stalled.

“There is no idea until this time when we might enter the town,” Ben Hamida said of Bani Walid. “Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen.” The fighters have said in recent days that a core of loyalist militiamen hold the town center.

Law and Order

Abdallah Kanshil, head of the NTC negotiating team involved in talks with Bani Walid’s elders for a peaceful handover, told them Sept. 6 that the NTC forces will respect law and order and won’t seek revenge for acts carried out under Qaddafi’s rule.

The town is the stronghold of the Warfalla, one of Libya’s major tribes.

Qaddafi’s son Saif Al-Islam has been seen in Bani Walid and is hiding in a cave in the area, “stepping out every now and then in the company of his bodyguards and regime supporters,” Kanshil told Al Jazeera television.

Thousands of anti-Qaddafi fighters advanced on Sept. 5 to positions within 15 kilometers of Bani Walid, ready to enter with force if the talks broke down.

In his audio message, Qaddafi urged loyalists to keep fighting and denied that he had fled to Niger or Venezuela.

Ex-Officials in Niger

Niger has detained “senior members” of Qaddafi’s government who fled to the neighboring country in vehicles Sept. 5, and is monitoring them, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday. Qaddafi wasn’t in the convoy, Niger’s interior minister said.

A group of senior loyalists, including former intelligence chief Mansour Daw, was welcomed into neighboring Niger for “humanitarian reasons,” Niger’s interior minister, Abdou Labo, said Sept. 6.

In an interview yesterday with the BBC, Niger’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum said Niger has “no means to close the border” with Libya because it’s “too big.”

Nuland said the U.S. has urged Niger to confiscate any weapons or wealth that might belong to the Libyan people. The U.S. has also contacted other African countries, including Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, to urge them to secure their borders and detain any fleeing Qaddafi officials, Nuland said.