By Samia Nakhoul
By Samia Nakhoul
TRIPOLI–Muammar Gaddafi is in a desert town outside Tripoli planning a fight-back, a Libyan military chief said on Thursday, as Libya’s interim rulers met world leaders to discuss reshaping a nation torn by 42 years of one-man rule and six months of war.
The ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), trying to mop up pro-Gaddafi forces, extended by a week a deadline for the surrender of the coastal city of Sirte, a spokesman said.
The council had given Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace and other areas still loyal to him, until Saturday to surrender or face a military assault.
The extension of the ultimatum follows a peace feeler from one of Gaddafi’s sons, Saadi.
“We were talking about negotiations based on ending bloodshed,” Saadi, whose whereabouts are not clear, said on al-Arabiya television on Wednesday, adding his father had authorised him to parley with the NTC.
The head of Tripoli’s military council, Abdul Hakim Belhadj, told Reuters the same day he had spoken to Saadi by telephone and promised him decent treatment if he surrenders.
But Gaddafi’s better-known son Saif al-Islam, in a statement on a Syrian-owned TV channel, promised a war of attrition until Libya was cleansed from “gangs and traitors”.
Mystery still surrounds Gaddafi’s whereabouts, with an NTC commander saying he is in Bani Walid and an Algerian newspaper reporting him in the border town of Ghadamis.
Abdel Majid Mlegta, coordinator of the Tripoli military operations room, told Reuters “someone we trust” had said Gaddafi fled to Bani Walid, 150 km (95 miles) southeast of the capital, with his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi three days after Tripoli fell last week.
All three fugitives are wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.
“They wanted to set up an operations room there and conduct aggressive operations against us,” Mlegta said. “We have talked to notables from Bani Walid to arrest him and hand him over. They haven’t responded. We are assessing our position.”
He said Ali al-Ahwal, Gaddafi’s coordinator for tribes, was also in Bani Walid, a stronghold of the powerful Warfalla tribe, Libya’s biggest at about a million strong among a population of six million, but by no means solidly pro-Gaddafi.
“We are capable of ending the crisis but military action is out of the question right now,” Mlegta said. “We cannot attack this tribe because many of our brigades in Benghazi and Zintan are from Bani Walid. The sons of Bani Walid hold the key.”
NTC fighters said on Tuesday they were 30 km from Bani Walid. NATO air strikes hit several rocket launchers near Sirte on Wednesday, as well as an ammunition storage facility and a military command post near Bani Walid, a NATO spokesman said.
Gaddafi has asked Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for refuge, but he refused to take the call, Algeria’s El Watan newspaper reported, citing a source close to the presidency.
It did not say when the call was made. El Watan said Gaddafi was believed to be in the border town of Ghadamis.
Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci said his country would not take in Gaddafi, although it has given sanctuary to his wife and three of his children, enraging Libya’s new leaders.
Medelci said Algeria, alone among Libya’s North African neighbours in not recognising the NTC, would do so when the council sets up a representative government.
The war may not be over until Gaddafi is killed or captured, but Libyans are keen to move on.
Russia recognised the NTC as Libya’s new leaders gathered with their international partners in Paris to coordinate political and economic reconstruction 42 years to the day since Gaddafi, then a 27-year-old army captain, toppled King Idris in a bloodless 1969 coup.
While the conference is focused on rebuilding Libya, some participants will also be jostling for a share in postwar contracts in the wealthy North African oil and gas producer.
Russia abstained from a U.N. Security Council vote in March that allowed Western military intervention in Libya but then repeatedly accused NATO forces of overstepping their mandate to protect civilians and of siding with rebels in the civil war.
Some in Libya suggest that Tripoli may slight nations like Russia and China in favour of stalwarts of the intervention such as Britain, France, the United States and Qatar.
China’s top official newspaper warned Western powers to let the United Nations lead postwar reconstruction in Libya, saying Beijing would defend its economic stake after Gaddafi’s ouster.
Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Libya, showed what could go wrong if the world body is not driving international involvement in postwar rebuilding, the People’s Daily said.
“Looking back at these three local wars since the start of this century, it’s easy to discern a pattern: the United Nations gets involved quite quickly and early on, but (then) the United States and its NATO allies come to the fore and steadily push out the U.N.,” it said.
Libya’s interim rulers have ruled out any U.N. peacekeepers or observers, but are keen on U.N. help with setting up a new police force, a U.N. envoy for postwar planning said this week.
Eager to meet immediate civilian needs, the NTC is expected to push for rapid access to billions of dollars in foreign-held Libyan assets frozen under U.N. sanctions on Gaddafi.
The United Nations has authorised the United States and Britain to unfreeze $1.5 billion each of Libyan assets, and France to free up 1.5 billion euros out of a total 7.6 billion euros.
Libyans who revolted against Gaddafi in February needed NATO air power to help them win, but, given their country’s unhappy colonial history, they remain wary of foreign meddling.
With Gaddafi driven from power, the “Friends of Libya” conference in Paris gives the NTC its first platform to address the world. Its chairman, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, will outline plans for a new constitution, elections within 18 months and ways to avoid any descent into postwar Iraq-style bloodletting.
“We have to help the National Transitional Council because the country is devastated, the humanitarian situation is difficult and there’s a lack of water, electricity and fuel,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on RTL radio.
Tripoli has enough fuel for now and food is starting to get through, but there is no end in sight to its water shortage, according to the European Union’s humanitarian office (ECHO).
Fuel at Zawiya refinery, 50 km west of Tripoli, appears to be enough to meet all of Libya’s short-term transport and energy needs, said the report obtained by Reuters.
“The shortage of drinking water is the predominant problem even though the coping mechanisms of the population prove to be better than anticipated,” it said.
Pro-Gaddafi forces have choked off Tripoli’s water supply and water engineers have not yet managed to reach the pumping stations at Jebel Hassouna, 700 km (435 miles) south of the capital, which are now in NTC hands, the report said.
Britain flew 40 tonnes of freshly printed bank notes, many bearing Gaddafi’s image, into Libya on Wednesday to help pay public workers and replenish bank cash machines.
The 280 million Libyan dinars, officially worth about $234 million, is part of a consignment worth about $1.5 billion blocked by Britain in March after he cracked down on protests.
The EU ended its sanctions on six Libyan ports, several oil firms and banks, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.
Photograph: Reuters/ Ismail Zetouny