TRIPOLI: Fugitive former Libyan leader Moammer Qaddafi denied as lies Thursday reports he has fled to Niger, while the remnants of his battered forces were pinned down by fighters of the regime that ousted him.
As pockets of fighting continued, Libya’s new leadership and the United States called on neighboring countries to close their borders to Qaddafi stalwarts.
The ex-leader, whose whereabouts are unknown, remained defiant in his first address for several days, telling his countrymen: "They have nothing else to resort to apart from psychological warfare and lies."
Speaking by telephone on the Damascus-based Arrai Oruba television channel, he added: "They last said Qaddafi had been seen in a convoy heading towards Niger.
"They want to weaken our morale. Do not waste time on this weak and ignoble enemy."
Qaddafi also said NATO, which has been carrying out daily air raids against his forces under a UN mandate since March 31, "will be defeated" as its "logistical capacities will not allow it" to press on with its campaign.
"We are ready in Tripoli and everywhere to intensify attacks against the rats, the mercenaries, who are a pack of dogs," he said.
Since his Tripoli headquarters was overrun on August 23, Qaddafi has made several appeals for resistance in tapes aired by Arrai, which is run by former Iraqi Sunni MP Mishan Al-Juburi.
Juburi, the only media personality able to contact Qaddafi since he went into hiding after forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) took Tripoli, said the ex-leader and his son Seif Al-Islam were still in Libya.
"I can tell you that I spoke with Qaddafi very recently," Juburi told AFP.
"He is in Libya, in very good spirits, feels strong, is not afraid, and would be happy to die fighting against the occupiers," Juburi said by phone.
"His son Seif Al-Islam is in the same state of mind," added Juburi, whose channel has broadcast a number of audio messages from the Qaddafis.
The NTC fears Qaddafi will try to slip over one of Libya’s borders, and Niger strongly denied he was in the country after a convoy carrying other senior ousted regime officials fled there on Monday.
The United States said Qaddafi was not believed to be among them.
In a bid to cut off Qaddafi’s potential escape routes, the NTC said it had dispatched a team to the Niger capital Niamey, and the United States said Qaddafi aides who entered Niger were being detained.
None of those crossing into Niger earlier this week appeared to be on a list of persons subject to United Nations sanctions, said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
"Our understanding is that the convoy included some military and senior officials under Qaddafi’s former regime," she said. "They are now being held in the capital … and they are being monitored closely by Nigerien officials."
Also, Washington "is in contact with Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso to emphasize the importance of respecting the UN Security Council resolutions and of securing their borders", Nuland said.
Niger’s Foreign Minster Mohammed Bazoum, attending a Sahel conference in Algiers, said neither Qaddafi nor any other wanted fugitives had arrived in his country.
Qaddafi could cross into Niger but "to go where? It doesn’t make sense," Bazoum said, adding that if Qaddafi has "to roam, he would roam around Libya, not across Africa."
The US ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, said Wednesday that Qaddafi will pose a "danger" for the country’s new leadership as long as he and his family remain at large.
"Having them continue to be free anywhere in Libya or outside of Libya poses a danger to whatever efforts the (NTC) is going to make in terms of establishing a government," he said in Washington.
New regime forces, meanwhile, were poised to battle loyalist troops still holding out in the strongholds of Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli; Sabha in the deep south and the coastal city of Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown.
In Brussels, NATO said it had hit a number of armored fighting vehicles in the vicinity of Sirte on Wednesday and surface-to-air missile systems at the desert oasis of Waddan, 280 kilometers (175 miles) south of there.
Libya’s new rulers are anxious to arrest Qaddafi and put him on trial, sealing their hold on the country.
Qaddafi’s remaining forces have been given a Saturday deadline to surrender, in a bid to spare further bloodshed.
In preparation for a transfer to government once the final holdouts have fallen, NTC number two Mahmoud Jibril arrived in Tripoli, acting deputy information minister Khaled Najm said.
But an NTC spokesman in Benghazi said the new authorities would not complete their move to the capital until Libya was "fully liberated".
"We still have work to do here" in Benghazi, said Fathi Baja, head of the NTC’s political affairs committee.
But in a sign of the struggle the new government will have in rebuilding the country’s economy, the International Energy Agency said the key oil exports are unlikely to return to their pre-war level before 2013.
"Our experts think that 2013 or beyond will most probably show the complete full restoration of the Libyan supply to the market, but not before that," Maria van der Hoeven told AFP in an interview.
Libya produced about 1.6 million barrels per day before the rebellion against Qaddafi broke out in mid-February.