TRIPOLI (Reuters) – – Muammar Gaddafi vowed to remain on Libyan soil battling NATO and the country’s new leaders, dismissing reports that he had secretly fled toward bordering African states as part of a military convoy.
His defiant comments to Syrian-owned TV came as fighters advanced on the tribal bastion of Bani Walid overnight, girding for a showdown with loyalist supporters in a town they suspect could be harboring the ousted strongman and two of his sons.
In a call to broadcaster Arrai TV on Thursday, the 69-year-Gaddafi, toppled by rebels two weeks ago after 42 years in power, rallied supporters and said surrender was out of the question.
“Our resolute Libyan people, the Libyan land is your own. Those who try to take it from you now, they are intruders, they are mercenaries, they are stray dogs. They are trying to seize our ancestral land from you but this is impossible. We will not leave our ancestral land,” Gaddafi said.
“The youths are now ready to escalate the resistance against the ‘rats’ (transitional forces) in Tripoli and to finish off the mercenaries,” Gaddafi said during the call, which the television station said was being made from within Libya.
Gaddafi said a military convoy that entered neighboring Niger this week, fueling speculation he might be about to flee, was “not the first.”
“Columns of convoys drive into and out of Niger carrying goods and people inside and outside (of Libya) say Gaddafi is going to Niger,” he said in the call that Arrai TV reported was made from within Libya. “This is not the first time that convoys drive in and out of Niger.”
Gaddafi’s whereabouts have been a mystery since rebel fighters stormed his Tripoli headquarters two weeks ago. Bani Walid, one of the few towns still in the hands of his followers, has refused to surrender despite a stand-off lasting some days.
Officials from the interim ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) said they had sent reinforcements after reports that Gaddafi had issued a call for the town to fight.
Reuters reporters saw a convoy of NTC pickup trucks heading toward Bani Walid with dozens of fighters clutching rocket-propelled grenades and shouting anti-Gaddafi slogans.
“We will move into Bani Walid slowly. There was a message in Bani Walid from Gaddafi this evening,” NTC unit commander Jamal Gourji said.
“He was rallying his troops and calling on people to fight. He is hiding in a hole in the ground, like Iraq,” he said, in a reference to late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, captured hiding in a hole nine months after he was toppled in 2003.
Outside the town on Wednesday, residents making their way out under the blazing desert sun through an NTC checkpoint at the nearby settlement of Wishtata painted an increasingly desperate picture.
“People are terrorized,” said Salah Ali, 39. “But many still support Gaddafi because they were paid by the regime, because many have committed crimes and are afraid of arrest.”
Aid agencies have raised concerns about humanitarian conditions there and in the few other cities still under control of Gaddafi loyalists. Communications with them have been cut.
GADDAFI “LOOKING FOR A CHANCE TO LEAVE”
The NTC has sent envoys to neighboring Niger to try to stop Gaddafi and his entourage evading justice by fleeing across a desert frontier toward friendly African states. A convoy arrived in Niger this week, but Niger said Gaddafi was not in it.
“We’re asking every country not to accept him. We want these people for justice,” Fathi Baja, the NTC’s head of political affairs told Reuters in Benghazi.
He said Gaddafi might be close to the Niger or Algerian borders, waiting for an opportunity to slip across. “He’s looking for a chance to leave.”
Another senior NTC official said Gaddafi was tracked this week to an area in the empty Sahara of Libya’s south.
But NTC officials near Bani Walid in the north, 150 km (90 miles) inland from Tripoli, said they believed two of Gaddafi’s sons and possibly the leader himself were inside the town.
“That would explain why Bani Walid is resisting,” NTC negotiator Abdallah Kanshil said of reports of Gaddafi’s presence in the town. “His two sons are definitely there.”
The Pentagon said it had no information to indicate the fallen leader had left his North African homeland. Niger, which took in his security chief this week, insisted Gaddafi had not crossed its border.
The United States said it had also contacted the governments of Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso — a swathe of poor former French colonies which benefited from Gaddafi’s oil-fueled largesse in Africa. The State Department urged them to secure their borders and to detain and disarm Gaddafi officials.
Gaddafi and his son, Saif al-Islam, are wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said any country where he was found should hand him over to be tried, remarks that were echoed by the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz.