Libya rebels tighten noose on Qaddafi bastion

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TRIPOLI: Libyan rebels closed in on Moammer Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte from both east and west on Sunday, a senior military commander said, as the insurgents also scrambled to get Tripoli back on its feet.

Rebel forces moved 30 kilometers (18 miles) closer to Sirte from the west and captured the town of Bin Jawad 100 kilometers to the east, the rebel commander in Misrata, Mohammed Al-Fortiya, told AFP.

"We took Bin Jawad today (Sunday)" on the eastern front, and "the thwar (rebel fighters) from Misrata are 30 kilometers from Sirte" in the west, Fortiya said.

Rebels pushing west from the oil hub of Ras Lanuf had been stuck for four days outside Bin Jawad, a key town on the road hugging the shores of the Gulf of Sirte, as Qaddafi’s forces kept up a defiant resistance.

Sirte is the elusive Qaddafi’s last bastion after rebels smashed his forces in Tripoli and seized his Bab Al-Aziziya headquarters, and now the insurgents are focusing on capturing the embattled Libyan leader.

Although his whereabouts remain a mystery, there is widespread speculation that Qaddafi is holed up in Sirte, 360 kilometers east of Tripoli, among tribal supporters there.

Fortiya said talks were under way with tribal leaders in Sirte for its surrender, adding that only tribal leaders were involved, and that to his knowledge no direct contact had been made with Qaddafi himself.

"We are negotiating with the tribes for Sirte’s peaceful surrender," he said.

In the capital, where life is slowly returning to normal after six months of bloody rebellion to end Qaddafi’s 42-year iron-fisted rule, sporadic gunfire was heard overnight.

As rebels scrambled to get Tripoli on its feet and appealed for funds, the Arab League early on Sunday urged the UN Security Council to unlock billions of dollars in Libyan assets and property.

Several explosions and machine-gun fire rattled Tripoli overnight, but it was unclear if those responsible were Qaddafi loyalists or rebels celebrating the takeover of the capital a week ago.

Rebel chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil, meanwhile, promised that Qaddafi and his senior aides would be given a fair trial if they surrendered.

"We call on Moammer Qaddafi and his associates to surrender so we can protect them and spare them illegal execution," Abdel Jalil said. "We guarantee them a fair trial, whatever their position."

The rebels have offered a $1.7 million reward for Qaddafi’s capture, dead or alive.

Speaking in the eastern city of Benghazi, where the rebellion began in February, the National Transitional Council (NTC) chief also called for emergency humanitarian aid for Tripoli, especially medical supplies.

"We are calling all the humanitarian organizations and telling them that Tripoli needs medicines, first aid products and surgical material," Abdel Jalil told a news conference.

Blaming "sabotage by Qaddafi’s forces" for water and electricity shortages in Tripoli, he said: "We are working on resolving these problems."

Abdel Jalil’s plea for help was heard loud and clear at Arab League headquarters in Cairo where a special meeting of foreign ministers urged "the UN and countries concerned" to "unfreeze the assets and property" of Libya.

A statement early on Sunday by the ministers also called on the United Nations "to permit the National Transitional Council to occupy the seat of Libya in the United Nations and its various organizations."

NTC number two Mahmud Jibril, who headed the Libyan delegation at the Cairo gathering, warned of "instability" in Libya if the rebels failed to restore salaries and services.

Meanwhile NTC spokesman Mahmud Shammam said the rebels would start distributing 30,000 tons of petrol to Tripoli residents and would also provide cooking gas within the next 48 hours.

They were also working to bring the Zawiyah refinery back on line, Shammam said, pleading for patience and calling on all public, private and oil sector employees to return to work.

"We are starting from point zero in this situation. Do not ask for miracles, but we promise to try to make this difficult period as short as we can," Shammam said.

He admitted that there were still pockets of pro-Qaddafi resistance.

"Anybody who thinks that there is not a fraction of people who support Qaddafi or that there is no fifth column who will try to trouble the peace of Tripoli would be mistaken."

On Sunday insurgents expanded their control over the airport and other parts of Tripoli where some pockets of resistance remained.

On Saturday they said they had captured the base of the elite 32 Brigade, commanded by Qaddafi’s son Khamis, after a NATO air strike and seven hours of fierce fighting that left 11 rebels dead.

In an adjoining cinder-block building an AFP correspondent saw the charred remains of some 50 people who residents said were captives killed on Tuesday by rifle fire and grenades.

Rebels also captured on Friday the Ras Jdir border post with Tunisia, through which it was feared that Qaddafi, his henchmen and family might try to escape.

They also took two villages from which Qaddafi loyalists had been bombarding Zuwarah, between the border and the capital, an AFP correspondent with them said.

Tripoli residents are preparing for the Eid Al-Fitr celebration which ends the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan next week.

Meanwhile the United Nations, African Union, Arab League and European Union urged both sides in Libya to avoid reprisals, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said after a gathering of the so-called Cairo Group.


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