Signs Of Battle Brewing In Sirte As Libyan Rebels Try To Secure Tripoli
TRIPOLI -- Rebel fighters in Libya were deploying heavy artillery and tanks toward Sirte, the birthplace of Muammar Qaddafi and one of the most important remaining strongholds for tribes and troops loyal to his regime.
Rebels have been trying to negotiate a peaceful end to fighting with Qaddafi loyalists in Sirte. But in what could be the first sign of a major battle there, pro-Qaddafi fighters fired heavy artillery at a rebel convoy that had advanced to a position about 30 kilometers west of Sirte.
The rebels in that convoy halted their vehicles and quickly brought up reinforcements -- including tanks on flatbed trucks -- along the coastal road from the direction of Tripoli.
Some correspondents have speculated that Qaddafi and his sons may have fled to Sirte. Their precise whereabouts remain unknown, but convoys of Qaddafi's troops had been seen retreating to Sirte from Tripoli on August 23 after rebels stormed Qaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound in the capital.
RFE/RL correspondent James Kirchick reports from Tripoli that opposition fighters continue to stream into the capital from across Libya in their attempt to defeat Qaddafi's remaining forces there and flush out the embattled ruler.
"The situation here remains quite tense," Kirchick says. "There are countless checkpoints across the city -- rebel-controlled checkpoints. We drove by this morning past the Qaddafi compound. The gates were open and there were people coming in and out. All of the guard towers were empty. Some of the walls were destroyed.
"There was a roundabout next to the compound, across from the zoo [park], where there was clearly some sort of pro-Qaddafi encampment with lots of posters showing his face, and it was completely destroyed. Tents were broken and there was a lot of trash. We saw several freshly dead corpses on the ground. We saw a convoy of about 12 pickup trucks mounted with artillery cannons and with rebel forces near the zoo [park]."
While the rebels control most of Tripoli, there are danger zones remaining where snipers, rocket explosions, and heavy artillery fire make life dangerous.
There were reports of heavy shooting around the Corinthia Hotel in the center of the capital, with rebels firing at snipers loyal to Qaddafi in nearby buildings.
In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters that NATO aircraft will continue their UN-mandated mission over Libya as long as Qaddafi loyalists pose a threat to Libyan civilians.
"The Qaddafi regime is finished. There is no way back for the Qaddafi regime," Hague said, "and clearly many of its key members are on the run. But there remain forces active [that are] loyal to the Qaddafi regime concentrated particularly in the south of Tripoli and around the city of Sirte, and as long as that remains the case and they remain a threat to the civilian population, then the NATO operations will continue."
Hague also confirmed that there were signs of a possible battle at Sirte.
"The free Libya forces are continuing to improve their control of areas of Tripoli. They are continuing to advance along the coast of Libya further to the east [toward Sirte]," Hague said. "And so the forces loyal to Qaddafi are in a steadily worse position. Nevertheless, yes, there is a danger that they will try to continue to fight. It is important to find Colonel Qaddafi and other key members of the regime."
Opposition fighters are determined to find Qaddafi so they can proclaim a final victory in the uprising that began six months ago and was all but crushed by Qaddafi's forces before NATO warplanes gave crucial air support to the rebels.
Rebel leaders say they want to put Qaddafi on trial in Libya, even though he and his son Saif al-Islam also have been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity.
The rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) also has offered a $1.7 million reward for the capture of Qaddafi, dead or alive.
The head of the council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, on August 24 offered amnesty to members of Qaddafi's close circle who kill or capture the elusive strongman.
"Businessmen in Benghazi have set up an award of 2 million Libyan dinars for anyone who captures Qaddafi," Jalil said. "And on another hand, the National Transitional Council announces that anyone from his inner circle who kills Qaddafi or captures him shall receive amnesty from the community."
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington is confident the National Transitional Council will be able to quickly set up governing structures once the battle for Tripoli has been resolved.
The Benghazi-based council said earlier that it will not move its headquarters to the Libyan capital until next week at the earliest. But Jalil announced that some council members arrived in Tripoli on August 25 and were beginning to set up headquarters there.
Meanwhile, diplomatic efforts have been launched at the United Nations and in Qatar by backers of the opposition in a bid to unlock of billions of dollars of Libyan assets for the rebels.
written in Prague by Ron Synovitz, with reporting by James Kirchick in Tripoli and agency reports
Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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