Rebel forces are determined to put an end to the fighting by taking Sirte – Mr. Qaddafi's coastal hometown – and Sabha in the south. After six months of fighting, they feel the end is near.
“It is this close,” says rebel fighter Ahmed Faitouri, putting his thumb and forefinger together as he stood at the rebels' last position on the approach to Sirte from the east, about 80 miles away. He wore a T-shirt that said “Camouflage classic” and carried a Kalashnikov.
Victory in Sirte is crucial because it would unite rebel-held territory from Tripoli in the west to the eastern city of Benghazi, giving the rebels uninterrupted control of the country's long coastal area and its many oil facilities.
Taking Sirte would also pose a key test of rebels' ability to persuade Qaddafi loyalists to admit that a 42-year era of dictatorial rule is over, lay down their arms, and integrate themselves in the new Libya.
Saturday deadline for Sirte's surrender
Rebels are approaching Sirte from both the east and west, but say they will give the city until the end of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr to surrender. If residents and fighters do not lay down arms by Saturday, the rebels say they will take Sirte by force.
National Transitional Council (NTC) leaders have reiterated in the past week that they want to avoid civilian bloodshed by giving the leaders of Sirte a chance to surrender. The residents of the city include members of Qaddafi’s tribe, and members of the elite Khamis Brigade, a military force commanded by Qaddafi’s son, are holding the city.
Qaddafi is still at large, though his wife and three of his adult children fled to Algeria yesterday, according to the Algerian Foreign Ministry. Libyans and outside observers have expressed concern that so long as Qaddafi remains at large, his loyalists are susceptible to striking back against the rebels and challenging their claims of sovereignty.
“But even if we liberate Sirte we are still looking for the head of the snake (Muammar Qaddafi),” says fighter Mohamed Salimi, who normally works at a paint factory.
Sirte 'not more difficult' to take than Brega
The rebel fighters are sending scouting parties ahead, and have gone as far as the Red Valley, where they were less than five miles away from Qaddafi’s forces, they say.
But to avoid getting hit by NATO air strikes, they are holding the main line at this intersection on the coastal highway, says Khaled El Maghrabi, leader of the Benghazi Martyrs Brigade. Yards away were three burned and twisted hulks of vehicles the rebels said NATO had bombed Sunday. One, the remnants of a truck with an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back, was still smoking.
Mr. Maghrabi said more than 50 brigades of fighters, which each average about 500 men, were massing there to take Sirte. While many of the fighters seemed to think the deadline for negotiations with the city’s tribal elders was Wednesday, Maghrabi said it had been postponed until Saturday because they did not want to attack during the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.
“We don’t want any more death. But if we are forced to fight, the battle will not be more difficult than Brega,” he says, as rifle reports snap through the air while fighters train with their weapons.
These rebel fighters had taken the city of Brega about a week before. That battle, for a city where important oil and gas facilities are located, broke a months-long stalemate.
The turning point came as the capital Tripoli began to fall to the rebels, and Qaddafi’s forces began to retreat toward Sirte. The rebels battled forward, taking not only Brega but also Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad as they moved west.
They were ambushed by Qaddafi’s forces twice before in Bin Jawad, and were more careful this time in clearing the city. Tuesday it was deserted other than a rebel checkpoint on the road. Military convoys rumbled past heading west, carrying heavy artillery toward Sirte. Some shops appeared smashed and burned.
TVs, washing machines, and vacuums
Rebels say the NTC is sending them all the provisions they need.
At the checkpoint sat stacks of brand-new goods – televisions, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, all in boxes as if they had come from a store, and stacks of new tires. The fighters manning the checkpoint first said the goods were humanitarian assistance sent from abroad. When questioned why televisions would be sent as humanitarian assistance, they changed the story, saying the people of Bin Jawad had left their things there for safekeeping as they fled the city ahead of the fight.
A resident of Bin Jawad who said his name was Ahmed contradicted them, saying the goods were stolen, and that rebels had confiscated the stolen goods from cars passing through the checkpoint. But rebels were not searching cars. As a reporter questioned them, they began covering the stacks of goods with blankets.
'Then we will liberate Sabha'
Back at the rebel line, dozens of fighters lie in the shade of short thorny bushes, their guns resting against the trunks.
Many say they hope that negotiations will succeed, but they are nevertheless ready for battle.
“We hope that the people of Sirte will handle themselves but we have to prepare for fighting, because we have to take Sirte,” says Mr. Faitouri. The picture on his ID badge shows a clean-shaven man, but his beard is thick after months on the front line. He says he hopes that all of Libya would soon be free.
After arriving at Sirte, he vows to go to the site of a key rebel victory in the west. “I will go to Miusrata, shake hands with the fighters there, and then go to Tripoli. And then we will liberate Sabha.”