Libyan rebels aim knockout punch at Qaddafi

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TRIPOLI: Hardened fighters streamed Thursday into Tripoli as Libya’s rebels sought to deliver a knockout punch to Moamer Qaddafi’s diehards and to flush out the elusive strongman, dead or alive.

They were being supported in their hunt for the wily Qaddafi by NATO, which according to Britain’s Defense Minister Liam Fox is contributing intelligence and reconnaissance equipment.

Rebel commanders said they were also readying fresh attempts to advance against Qaddafi’s forces in his hometown Sirte, 360 kilometers (225 miles) east of Tripoli and to break a siege of Zuwarah, a town to the west.

Leading the army of reinforcements into Tripoli were seasoned combatants from the city of Misrata, whose fellow fighters spearheaded the weekend assault that saw the Libyan capital swiftly overrun and Qaddafi’s Bab Al-Aziziya compound captured by Tuesday.

Rebel commanders said that while they control most of Tripoli, hot spots remain where sniper fire, rocket explosions and heavy weaponry make life dangerous.

The rebels are also hell-bent on finding Qaddafi, so they can proclaim final victory in an uprising that began six months ago and was all but crushed by Qaddafi’s forces before NATO warplanes gave crucial air support to the rebels.

Rebel leaders say they want to put Qaddafi on trial in Libya even though he also faces charges of crimes against humanity along with his son Seif Al-Islam and spymaster Abdullah Al-Senussi at the International Criminal Court.

The rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) on Wednesday offered a $1.7 million reward for the capture of the elusive strongman, dead or alive.

"The NTC supports the initiative of businessmen who are offering two million dinars for the capture of Moamer Qaddafi, dead or alive," NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil said in the rebel capital Benghazi.

Jalil also offered amnesty to "members of (Qaddafi’s) close circle who kill him or capture him."

The 69-year-old Qaddafi has not been seen in public for weeks and despite losing control of the oil-rich North African country he ruled with an iron first for 42 years is still managing to broadcast messages urging Libyans to drive out the "rats" — as he disparagingly calls the rebels.

He also claimed on Wednesday to have walked incognito on the streets of Tripoli without being recognized.

Britain’s Fox told Sky news on Thursday that NATO is providing "intelligence and reconnaissance assets to the NTC to help them track down Colonel Qaddafi and other remnants of the regime."

The defense ministry said Fox was referring to "various assets such as military planes."

A ministry spokesman would not say whether SAS Special Forces members had been deployed in the search, as reported by the Daily Telegraph.

The newspaper quoted defense ministry sources as saying SAS members were sent to Libya several weeks ago and played a key role in coordinating the battle for Tripoli.

Meanwhile diplomatic efforts were launched at the United Nations and in Qatar by backers of the insurgents to secure the unlocking of billions of dollars of Libyan assets for the rebels.

The rebels also made key diplomatic gains when two of Qaddafi’s staunchest African allies — Chad and Burkina Faso — said they recognize the NTC as the sole representative of the Libyan people.

A rebel military spokesman told Al-Jazeera television that "Libyan territory is 90 to 95 percent under the control of the rebellion."

Colonel Abdullah Abu Afra said "the fall of Bab Al-Aziziya marked the end of the Qaddafi regime in Tripoli and in Libya" after 42 years in power.

In Tripoli’s souk Al-Jumaa, the arrival of at least 60 Misrata rebels on Wednesday sparked joy among residents.

"We are very happy. Misrata’s soldiers can win anything," said Taha Abu Zeid. "They could even win Afghanistan."

They were joined by rebels from as far west as the Nafusa Mountains and as far east as Benghazi, as field commanders vowed to bring the capital under full rebel control.

Fighting is concentrated along the perimeters of Bab Al-Aziziya and the neighboring Abu Slim district, where Qaddafi reportedly released, armed and paid former prisoners to fight for his regime.

On Wednesday, thick smoke hung over the Bab Al-Aziziya complex, where the two sides fought with light arms, heavy machine guns, rocket propelled grenades and mortars.

Other pro-Qaddafi troops fired heavy Grad rockets in a bid to regain control of Tripoli’s airport from a small group of rebels holding on.

In its latest operational report, NATO said it had on Wednesday struck numerous targets in the vicinity of Tripoli, including two military storage facilities, two anti-aircraft guns and a multiple rocket launcher.

But rebels said Qaddafi forces were pounding insurgents holding the centre of Zuwarah, west of Tripoli, adding that they needed reinforcements to help them break the siege.

Rebels advancing towards Sirte were also blocked Wednesday in the town of Bin Jawad as loyalists kept up stiff resistance.

"Qaddafi’s forces are still fighting, we are surprised. We thought they would surrender with the fall of Tripoli," rebel commander Fawzi Bukatif said.

In Doha the NTC sought five billion dollars in emergency aid from frozen assets at a meeting with foreign representatives from the Libya contact group, the NTC’s delegate Aref Ali Nayed said.

The sum was twice that announced Tuesday by NTC number two Mahmud Jibril.

Nayed said the NTC needed the cash to pay civil servants’ wages, meet other basic humanitarian needs, clear mines from towns and cities and restore schools and hospitals.

But at the United Nations South Africa refused to lift a block on the United States unfreezing 1.5 billion dollars of Libyan assets to buy humanitarian aid, setting up a diplomatic showdown at the Security Council.

South Africa insisted the council wait for the African Union to decide whether to recognize the NTC at a summit Thursday before approving the move.




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