Libya's interim leader predicts Sirte victory by end of week

A Sirte victory would end the protracted battle for Qaddafi's hometown and allow a new government to be established. Delay could increase the likelihood of rifts in Libya's future leadership.

Saad Shalash/Reuters
Anti-Qaddafi fighters fire C5 rockets during clashes with pro-Qaddafi forces at the front line in the Libyan city of Sirte on Tuesday.

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Libya's rebels say they have Muammar Qaddafi loyalists in Sirte trapped in the center of the city, bringing the rebels closer to overcoming the biggest remaining hurdle to establishing an interim government. One rebel commander in Sirte said they now control 80 percent of the city.

"I think and I hope, with the help of God, the liberation of [Sirte and Bani Walid, a Qaddafi stronghold in the desert] these two towns will be completed by the end of this week. God willing," provisional Prime Minister Mahmoud Abdul Jalil said Sunday.

The establishment of an interim government has been put on hold until the rebels can claim victory across the country. The delay has raised the likelihood of divisions within the rebel leadership and stymied efforts to get oil production under way again – two things that will play a significant role in whether Libya can preserve stability. The protracted fighting could also "breed longterm hostility" because of heavy civilian casualties, Reuters reports.

In the absence of an interim government that can exert authority, a split may emerge between the Tripoli Military Council, run by Islamists and somewhat in control of the capital, and the National Transitional Council (NTC), led by Mr. Abdul Jalil. The various armed groups that joined forces in August to take over Tripoli could be another source of tension, according to Reuters.

BBC reports that the NTC will declare Libya liberated once they fully capture Sirte, even in Mr. Qaddafi is still at large. Although the desert town of Bani Walid also remains in Qaddafi loyalist hands, the rebels do not consider it critical for declaring victory because it does not lead to any escape routes through which Qaddafi could flee the country.

Rebel fighters incurred heavy casualties in the fight for Sirte. Loyalist fighters used snipers and mortar barrages to pick them off as they advanced on loyalist bastions in the city, such as the main Sirte hospital and the Ouagadougou conference center, which Qaddafi built for hosting regional summits, according to the BBC.

Many civilians are trapped in the city and afraid that when the fighting subsides, they might face retaliation from rebel fighters angry that the town largely stayed loyal to Qaddafi.

Qaddafi himself remains at large, periodically releasing recorded messages of encouragement to his dwindling support base. Although finding Qaddafi was previously a central focus of the NTC and rebel forces, they now seem to be more concerned with taking over Sirte and Bani Walid.

A Tuareg representative on the NTC, Moussa al-Kouni, said today that he believes Qaddafi is hiding in Libya's southern desert, near the borders with Niger and Algeria, the Associated Press reports. The nomadic Tuaregs are based in southern Libya, along the border with Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Chad, and were some of Qaddafi's strongest supporters during the civil war. Mr. Kouni said that Qaddafi had sent his son Khamis to the area to scout out a possible escape route two months before Tripoli fell.

Some rebel military officials suspect the Tuaregs of helping Qaddafi remain hidden, but Mr. Al Kouni said that if any Tuaregs are providing assistance, it was not a community decision, but an individual one.

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