Libya’s new leaders were urgently seeking Niger’s help in preventing Muammar Gaddafi, his family or his troops from crossing the border, as the hunt for the fugitive strongman intensified.
New regime forces, meanwhile, were poised to battle loyalist troops still holding out in their remaining strongholds of Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli, Sabha in the deep south and the coastal city of Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown.
Gaddafi’s sole remaining media mouthpiece, Mishan al-Juburi, owner of the Syria-based Arrai Oruba television, said the defeated leader was still in Libya, along with his son Saif al-Islam.
“I can tell you that I spoke with Gaddafi very recently,” Juburi told AFP.
“He is in Libya, in very good spirits, feels strong, is not afraid, and would be happy to die fighting against the occupiers,” Juburi, a former Iraqi MP, said by telephone.
“His son Saif al-Islam is in the same state of mind,” added Juburi, whose channel has broadcast a number of audio messages from Gaddafi and his son since they went into hiding after Tripoli was overrun by rebel fighters last month.
Asked how he makes contact with Gaddafi, Juburi said: “When I need to talk to him, I send him a message, or he contacts me when he wants to pass a message.”
Libya’s new rulers are anxious to arrest Gaddafi and put him on trial, thus sealing their hold on the country.
They are fearful he may slip into a neighbouring country, particularly Niger, to which a convoy carrying other senior officials of his ousted regime fled on Monday.
Bidding to cut off Gaddafi’s potential escape routes, the now-ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) said it had dispatched a team to Niamey.
“We have sent a delegation today that is going to Niger to talk … about securing our borders to stop any kind of infiltration of Gaddafi troops to Niger, to stop any attempt by Gaddafi or his family to escape to Niger,” Fathi Baja, head of the NTC’s political affairs committee, said.
“We ask any neighbouring countries to stop Gaddafi people from going to their land,” Fathi told reporters in the eastern city of Benghazi.
When asked about the convoy that entered Niger reportedly carrying money and gold, he replied: “We don’t know how much money this convoy was transporting but, according to what we know, security reports provided by groups in this region, from phone contacts and certain people’s dispatches, we can say that they have seen money and gold in these cars.”
He added: “If that happened, we want that money back.”
The large convoy of civilian and military vehicles entered Niger late on Monday and drove through the city of Agadez.
Niger was adamant Gaddafi was not with the convoy, while Washington said that while some senior officials of the ousted regime were in the convoy, he was not believed to be among them.
Gaddafi’s remaining forces have been a given a Saturday deadline to surrender, in a bid to spare further bloodshed.
At Bani Walid, 170km southeast of Tripoli, negotiators were still seeking to broker the oasis town’s peaceful surrender.
“The negotiations were successful yesterday and we are waiting for the NTC to give us the green light to go in,” said the NTC’s chief negotiator, Abdullah Kenshil.
NTC leaders say they are committed to avoiding bloodshed in Bani Walid, even after a delegation sent there on Tuesday retreated after being fired on.
“The elders have joined the revolution,” Kenshil said, adding that some of them were in Tripoli and others were back in Bani Walid after armed men loyal to Gaddafi initially prevented them from returning.
In the hamlet of Wishtata, some 40 kilometres from the front, Colonel Abdullah Abu Asara said his volunteer fighters were ready for anything.
“We are fully ready to attack, we are just waiting for the command from the National Transitional Council, we are under their command now,” he told AFP.
NTC forces on Wednesday were trying to advance along the road from Um Khunfis to the Red Valley, the pro-Gaddafi forces’ front line, some 60 kilometres east of Sirte, an AFP journalist said, reporting artillery fire.
Loyalist forces putting up strong resistance fired several shells at NTC vehicles at an electricity power station, but there was no immediate word on casualties.
On Tuesday, NTC forces advanced at least eight kilometres towards Sirte in heavy fighting, commanders said.
NATO, in its latest operational update on Wednesday, said its warplanes had bombed six tanks, six armoured fighting vehicles, four armed vehicles, a munitions store and an artillery piece in Sirte the previous day.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will visit Libya on September 15 for talks with NTC chief Mustafa Abdul Jalil in Benghazi, the Turkish premier’s office said on Wednesday.
In July, Ankara recognised the NTC as Libya’s legitimate government.
Portugal’s Foreign Minister Paulo Portas, visiting Benghazi on Wednesday, urged his country’s businessmen to return to Libya, calling it “a land of opportunities.”