Libya rebels poised to attack Qadhafi hometown

TRIPOLI – Libyan rebels prepared Monday to launch an assault to capture Muammer Qadhafi's hometown of Sirte and win full control of Libya, while scrambling to get war-ravaged Tripoli back on its feet.

Sirte is the elusive Qadhafi's last bastion after rebels smashed his forces in Tripoli and seized his Bab al-Aziziya headquarters.

Libyan rebel chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil warned in Doha Monday that Qadhafi still posed a danger inside and outside of Libya and urged no let-up in international action against him.

"Qadhafi's defiance of the coalition forces still poses a danger, not only for Libya but for the world. That is why we are calling for the coalition to continue its support," Abdel Jalil, leader of the rebels' National Transitional Council (NTC), said at a meeting of chiefs of staff of countries militarily involved in Libya, including Qatar.

Fierce fighting also raged in the west of Libya as rebels trying to wrest control of the region from Qadhafi's forces said they had fallen into an ambush in a town southwest of Zuwarah.

Rebel forces moved to within 30km of Sirte from the west and captured Bin Jawad 100km to the east, the rebel commander in Misrata, Mohammed al-Fortiya, told AFP.

"We took Bin Jawad today" on the eastern front, and "the thwar (rebel fighters) from Misrata are 30km 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 coast road of the Gulf of Sirte, as Qadhafi's forces kept up a defiant resistance.

Although Qadhafi's whereabouts remain a mystery, there is widespread speculation that he is holed up in Sirte, 360km east of Tripoli, among tribal supporters there.

"We are negotiating with the tribes for Sirte's peaceful surrender," Fortiya said, adding that only tribal leaders were involved, and that to his knowledge no direct contact had been made with Kadhafi himself.

But a spokesman for the NTC, Mahmud Shammam, warned that negotiations for Sirte's peaceful handover would not be open-ended.

"The negotiations will not go on for ever," he said. "The talks are still going on…We would like to unify Libya very quickly."

Sirte has been targeted by NATO warplanes, which on Friday and Saturday destroyed more than 50 military vehicles, two military shelters, a military observation point and a military engineer asset.

The air assault continued on Sunday, with NATO in its latest operational update saying four radars, 20 surface to air missile canisters, three military support vehicles and two surface to air missile systems were hit.

The latest strikes follow a bombing raid by British warplanes against a large headquarters bunker in Sirte late Thursday.

Rebels meanwhile were battling on another front – to restore services to the capital, scene of heavy fighting in the past week during which the rebels routed loyalist troops although pockets of resistance remain.

Some 70 percent of homes in central Tripoli have no running water because of damage to the network, but potable water is being distributed from mosques, NTC officials said.

Abed al-Obeidi, deputy chief of the transitional council in Tripoli, said the water problem was because of technical faults, denying that sabotage by Qadhafi's forces was to blame.

Dr. Najib Barakat of a local rebel council for Tripoli said there were enough medical supplies for three or four weeks, and that some 60 percent of the capital's medical staff were at work.

"All of Tripoli's hospitals are working," Barakat said, except at Abu Slim where around 80 decomposing bodies had been found. "The bodies have been removed and the hospital is being disinfected."

In the rebel bastion of Benghazi, military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani told reporters more than 10,000 captives have been freed from Qadhafi's jails since the fall of Tripoli but almost 50,000 others are still missing.

"The number of people arrested over the past months (of the anti-Qadhafi revolt) is estimated at between 57,000 and 60,000," he said. "Between 10,000 and 11,000 prisoners have been freed up until now…so where are the others?"

"We hope that Qadhafi is still in Libya so we can rid the world of this insect," he said. "The only way to treat this pest is to make him accountable for the crimes in Libya."

The rebels have offered a US$1.7 million-dollar reward for Qadhafi's capture, dead or alive.

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

They captured the base of the elite 32 Brigade, commanded by Qadhafi's son Khamis, on Saturday 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 by Qadhafi forces on Tuesday with rifle fire and grenades.

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