Libya rebels postpone attack on Qaddafi stronghold in show of confidence

Today, Libya's transitional leaders extended the deadline for the Qaddafi stronghold of Sirte to surrender. The move is a bid to avoid a fight that undermines efforts to build postwar unity.

Francois Mori/AP
A Libyan rebel stands at a checkpoint in Tripoli, Libya, Thursday, Sept. 1.

Libya’s transitional leaders have extended the deadline for tribal leaders in Muammar Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte to surrender, in an attempt to prevent a bloody battle that could endanger attempts to unify Libya after the war is over.

Even as they announced their patience, a television station broadcast an audio recording of Qaddafi urging his supporters to keep fighting.

The deputy head of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Abdel Hafidh Ghoga, said the deadline, due to expire on Saturday, was extended for one week, until Sept. 10. The negotiations are making progress, and a village close to Sirte, called Harawa, agreed to surrender today, he said.

“In Harawa, they accept for the revolutionaries to enter their city without any fighting. And we hope the same will take place in Sirte,” he said. “I think they will allow our revolutionaries to enter Sirte, and that’s why we extended the deadline. We are trying to do our best to prevent any bloodshed.”

He said the rebels had not yet entered Harawa, but would do so by tomorrow. His claim could not be verified.

The decision not to launch an attack on Sirte Saturday shows the length to which the NTC leaders are willing to go to avoid bloody fighting there, where tribes loyal to Qaddafi, including his own tribe, have so far been defiant. A bitter fight to the end there would involve high civilian casualties and could entrench the tribal divisions that Libya is seeking to overcome, making postwar reconciliation much more difficult.

The postponement also suggests a confidence on the part of rebel leaders that a negotiation breakthrough is near. Though the anti-Qaddafi forces now have a fairly firm grip on the capital, Tripoli, large swaths of Libya, including parts of the south, remain under control of his supporters. The rebels desperately need to take Sirte to unify their coastal territory from Tripoli to Benghazi in the east.

Qaddafi urges resistance

After the rebel leaders’ announcement, a Syrian television station aired an audio recording it said was Qaddafi himself, in which the ousted leader urged resistance against “foreign aggression,” and said, “We will not surrender. We are not women, we will continue fighting.”

His apparently recorded rant was long and rambling and characteristically delusional. He remained defiant, saying, “Let there be a long fight. Let Libya be engulfed in flames.”

The rebels are also likely under pressure from their international allies to keep the conflict from turning into a lingering insurgency or civil war.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron held a “Friends of Libya” meeting in Paris today, attended by 60 delegations, which Mr. Sarkozy said would "turn the page on dictatorship and combat to open a new era of cooperation with a democratic Libya."

Western nations are pushing the Libyan transitional leaders to end the conflict stage and move squarely into the political phase by establishing a credible government that will offer greater stability and restore Libya’s economy.

Mr. Ghoga said the negotiations in Sirte were being carried out through elders of tribes that support the NTC. Those elders are talking with tribal elders in Sirte to convince them to lay down arms.

Fighters near the front line Tuesday were optimistic that the standoff could be solved through Libya’s traditional tribal method, though they were prepared to fight for Sirte if negotiations failed. It is unclear, however, how much control tribal elders have over soldiers in Qaddafi’s military brigades who are still fighting against the rebels, particularly the members of the Khamis Brigade.

But the NTC's deputy interior minister, Mustapha Sagazly, said that he did not know of an extension in the deadline and that rebel forces were still preparing for an attack. "There is no ceasefire or negotiations," he said. "They are not able to negotiate, because the ones who are controlling Sirte are Qaddafi's loyalists and they are not willing to negotiate." He said that Qaddafi's forces are currently shelling the rebels. "Saturday is the deadline. After that, according to our plan and preparations, we will act," he said. The conflicting messages portray the confusion and lack or coordination that has come to characterize the NTC leadership.

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