NORTH OF BANI WALID/EAST OF SIRTE, (Reuters) – Muammar Gaddafi loyalists fired rocket barrages at fighters besieging two Libyan towns still under the deposed leader’s control on Friday as fierce fighting erupted a day ahead of a deadline for their surrender.
They unleashed volleys of Grad rockets at forces of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) north of Bani Walid and east of Gaddafi’s home town, Sirte, Reuters witnesses said.
The NTC has given Bani Walid, 150 km (95 miles) southeast of Tripoli, and the coastal city of Sirte until Saturday to give up peacefully or face attack — although previous deadlines have been extended to allow more time for talks.
The latest battles were the heaviest in days, but NTC commanders did not say they had begun any all-out assault.
Ambulances streamed back and forth to ferry casualties from near Bani Walid, as NTC fighters grabbed crates of rocket-propelled grenades and mortars and raced to the front.
In Teassain, 90 km east of Sirte, Reuters witnesses saw heavy rocket exchanges between NTC forces and Gaddafi loyalists.
Gaddafi’s own location has been a mystery since Tripoli fell to his enemies on August 23 after a six-month civil war, although he insisted in a defiant message broadcast on Thursday that he was still in Libya to lead the fight against what he called the “rats” and “stray dogs” who had taken over the capital.
But four of his top officials, including his air force commander and a general in charge of his forces in the south, were among a new group of Libyans who have fled to neighboring Niger, officials in Niger said.
General Ali Kana, the southern commander, and Ali Sharif al-Rifi, the air force chief, were among 14 Libyans who arrived in the northern Niger town of Agadez on Thursday after crossing the border in a convoy of four-wheel drive vehicles, they said.
A Reuters reporter in Agadez said the four senior men were staying at the luxury Etoile du Tenere hotel, said to be owned by Gaddafi, who stayed there during a Muslim holiday in 2007.
Niger, under pressure from Western powers and Libya’s new rulers to hand over former Gaddafi officials suspected of human rights abuses, said it would respect its commitments to the ICC if Gaddafi or his sons entered the country.
“We are signatories of the (ICC’s) Rome Statute so they know what they are exposed to if they come,” Massaoudou Hassoumi, the head of President Mahamadou Issoufou’s cabinet, told Reuters.
He said the latest arrivals were “under control” in Agadez, through which the head of Gaddafi’s security brigades, Mansour Dhao, passed earlier this week en route to the capital Niamey.
“We are taking them in on humanitarian grounds. No one has told us that these are wanted people,” said Hassoumi.
Joining the hunt for Gaddafi, Interpol issued arrest warrants for him, his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, who are all wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for suspected crimes against humanity.
“Gaddafi is a fugitive whose country of nationality and the ICC want arrested and held accountable for the serious criminal charges that have been brought against him,” said Ronald Noble, secretary general of the Lyons-based police organization.
A Tunis-based NTC official, Moussa al-Kouni, told al Arabiya television he believed Gaddafi was somewhere in the southern desert that stretches into Niger and Mauritania.
“He is not in a city. He is not in Agadez. It is difficult to catch him. We will need intelligence tips from the residents of the desert,” he said, adding that Gaddafi could be disguised as a local shepherd or nomad.
Families trickled out of Bani Walid before the fighting intensified, belongings crammed into their cars.
“I’m taking my family away from war,” said Khalid Ahmouda, stopping his car briefly to speak to Reuters. “They are afraid because there will be a big fight today or tomorrow.”
His veiled wife, Oum Abdurahman, leaned from a window, holding her baby son. “There’s no power, no food, no water. Many people want to leave but have no fuel for their cars and Gaddafi forces are preventing people from leaving,” she said.
“They fire in the air to terrorize people. Today we managed to leave,” she said, adding that her brother-in-law was among 11 people killed on May 25 in a crackdown on townsfolk who had staged anti-Gaddafi protests.
NTC officials at a checkpoint 30 km from Bani Walid said Gaddafi fighters had been captured. Reuters witnesses saw some men driven away with their hands tied behind them, as well as two bodies, said to be Gaddafi fighters, in a pick-up truck.
NTC fighters say that only about 150 well-armed Gaddafi loyalists are holed up in the town, with dozens of pick-up trucks fitted with anti-aircraft guns and heavy machine guns, as well as multiple rocket launchers and artillery.
Smoke rose from the front line, now just five km from the town, as NATO planes roared overhead.
The resistance offered by Gaddafi loyalists in Bani Walid, Sirte and the southern desert town of Sabha is obstructing efforts by Libya’s new rulers to stabilize the country.
Concern is mounting for 1,700 African migrants, mainly from Niger, Somalia, Eritrea and Nigeria, who are stranded in Sabha as the deadline approaches for a negotiated surrender at Bani Walid, the International Organization for Migration said.
The IOM was trying to send a convoy from Tripoli with food, water and medical supplies for the migrants at Sabha ahead of their evacuation either by air or by road to Chad or Niger, IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy said.
“The deadline in Ben Walid comes at the weekend and that is not making anything easier, if there is fighting on that front. There are many unknowns in this equation,” he told Reuters.
Niger, which only this year returned to civilian rule and is fighting al Qaeda-linked groups in its desert north, fears the Libya conflict might spill over, said cabinet chief Hassoumi.
“We have prepared for a worst-case scenario, for example if Bani Walid and Sirte were to fall by force, it could cause a massive stampede of armed groups into Niger,” he said.
Some NTC officials have said Gaddafi must be captured or killed before Libya can be declared liberated and a timetable for elections and a new constitution can start running.
The NTC, struggling to impose its authority on Libya, a sprawling energy-rich desert state of six million people, says it hopes to move its administration to Tripoli from the eastern city of Benghazi next week and to resume pumping oil.