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Libya's transitional rebel leadership has issued an ultimatum to Muammar Qaddafi's last remaining stalwarts: Surrender by Saturday, or face a final military assault on the towns still loyal to Qaddafi.
A week after routing Qaddafi loyalists from Tripoli, the rebels appear anxious to bring a decisive end to the six-month conflict and firmly establish their sovereignty before a power vacuum can emerge, according to The New York Times.
His comments may have reflected a desire to resolve the awkward halfway status of the rebel leadership, which at the moment bears much of the responsibility of a new government but without the full legitimacy. There have been hints of friction in Tripoli as some brigades of fighters balk at decisions of the transitional rebel leadership, and militia members who came from east and west to invade the capital mark their jurisdictions, block by block, with spray paint.
The two key cities remaining in loyalists' hands are Qaddafi's coastal hometown of Sirte, and the southern town of Sabha. Wide swaths of territory in Libya's desert interior are also believed to be strongly loyalist, given that Qaddafi's wife and three children were able to travel through that area to safety in Algeria earlier this week. [Editor's note: This paragraph has been edited to correctly state who is in control of Sirte and Sabha.]
NATO said Wednesday that it is still hoping to negotiate a settlement and avoid a bloody standoff, particularly in Sirte. The rebels are moving toward Sirte from both the east and west, with plans to converge on the town for a final major battle by this weekend, The Christian Science Monitor reports.
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.
“No dignified honorable nation would accept an ultimatum from armed gangs,” he said in a phone call with the Associated Press. Mr. Ibrahim did repeat the regime's offer to negotiate the formation of a transitional government, but the rebels dismissed that option. The National Transitional Council (NTC) that orchestrated much of the uprising from Benghazi has said it will appoint an interim government once Qaddafi is found, the Monitor reports.
The Washington Post reports that the rebels see Sirte, about 275 miles east of Tripoli, as the most important loyalist holdout. Many loyalist fighters who were routed in earlier battles have taken refuge in Sirte and the southern town of Sabha.
"If we want to unify the whole country and if we want to declare that the war is over, we have to free Sirte," Mustafa Sagazly, deputy interior minister of the opposition’s Transitional National Council, said Monday. "Otherwise, we’ll be in a continuous state of war."
The remaining loyalist fighters have put up a fierce fight to protect Sirte, firing Grad rockets and Scud missiles on the advancing rebel troops.
NATO has continued its airstrikes, focusing on the roads leading to Sirte and loyalist strongholds along the way, the Associated Press reports. On Monday, it hit roughly three dozen Qaddafi military targets in the vicinity of the town.
But even if the rebels take Sirte, there are swaths of the country that remain out of rebel control and dotted with small loyalist strongholds. It was through one of those no-man's-land areas that members of the Qaddafi family escaped to Algeria from Bani Walid (see map) earlier this week, the Guardian reports.
The escape was made in a convoy of six armoured Mercedes limousines, once part of an extensive government fleet, which departed from the town of Bani Walid, the stronghold of Libya's biggest tribe, the Warfallah, where significant remnants of the regime are holding out.
But the fact that a conspicuous convoy of six armoured limousines could drive unmolested down the length of the country, from Bani Walid to the pro-Gaddafi bastion at Sebha, on the edge of the Sahara desert, and then west to the Algerian border, indicates that there is a wide swath of the central Libyan hinterland outside the NTC's grasp.
Suspicions are growing that Muammar Qaddafi is hiding in the vicinity of Bani Walid, where loyalist control is still solid enough for pro-Qaddafi broadcasts to be heard on local radio, according to the Guardian.
Some rebels and Western intelligence and special forces, mostly British, have been diverted to the Bani Walid area to continue the hunt for Qaddafi there. The Warfallah tribe's rumored loyalty to the Qaddafi regime is questionable – it made no attempt to defend Tripoli, despite vows from the regime that it had the tribe's support. Bani Walid itself was the locus of an uprising in the 1990s, after the regime accused military officers from the area of spying for the US and arrested 55 of them, later executing some of them.
"That history suggests that Bani Walid may not prove an enduring haven for the ousted leader and his sons," the Guardian notes.