TRIPOLI – Libya's interim leader on Tuesday gave forces loyal to deposed ruler Muammar Qadhafi a four-day deadline to surrender towns still under their control or risk a military showdown.
As the hunt for Qadhafi himself goes on, Libyan officials accused neighboring Algeria of an act of aggression for admitting his fleeing wife and three of his children.
Algeria's Foreign Ministry said Qadhafi's wife Safia, his daughter Aisha and his sons Hannibal and Mohammed had entered Algeria on Monday morning, along with their children.
That stirred a diplomatic row just as Libya's interim council works to consolidate its authority and capture places still loyal to Qadhafi, notably the coastal city of Sirte.
"By Saturday, if there are no peaceful indications for implementing this, we will decide this matter militarily. We do not wish to do so but we cannot wait longer," Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of Libya's interim council, told a news conference.
Anti-Qadhafi forces have converged on Sirte from east and west, but have stopped short of an all-out assault in hopes of arranging a negotiated surrender of Qadhafi's birth-place.
"Zero hour is quickly approaching," military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Bani told a news conference in Benghazi.
"We're not negotiating with the (Gaddafi) regime. We're talking to the elders of the various affiliates and tribes," he said, adding that Qadhafi loyalists were thwarting the desire of most civilians to "join the free Libya liberated areas."
Qadhafi's whereabouts have been unknown since his foes seized his Tripoli compound on August 23, ending his 42-year rule after a six-month revolt backed by NATO and some Arab states.
QADHAFI "WENT TO SABHA"
Britain's Sky News, citing a young bodyguard of Qadhafi's son Khamis, said the leader had stayed in Tripoli until Friday when he left for the southern desert town of Sabha.
It quoted the captured 17-year-old as saying Qadhafi met Khamis, a feared military commander, at around 1:30 pm on Friday in a Tripoli compound that was under heavy rebel fire. Qadhafi had arrived by car and was soon joined by Aisha.
After a short meeting, they boarded four-wheel drive vehicles and left, the bodyguard told a Sky reporter, adding that his officer had told him: "They're going to Sabha."
Along with Sirte, Sabha is one of the main remaining bastions of pro-Qadhafi forces.
A NATO spokesman said reports of talks over Sirte were encouraging, but said the alliance, which has kept up a five-month bombing campaign, was targeting the city's approaches.
"Our main area of attention is a corridor…(leading up) to the eastern edge of Sirte," Colonel Roland Lavoie said.
Some anti-Qadhafi officers have reported that Khamis Qadhafi and former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi were both killed in a clash on Saturday. This has not been confirmed and the NATO spokesman said he had no word on Khamis's fate.
More NTC forces were heading for Bani Walid, a Qadhafi tribal stronghold 150km southeast of Tripoli.
"Three units were sent from Misrata toward Bani Walid this morning…Our fighters are now 30 km from Bani Walid," said Mohammed Jamal, a fighter at a checkpoint on the road to the town. "Hopefully Bani Walid will also be liberated soon. Right now there are still many Qadhafi supporters there."
TENSE RELATIONS WITH ALGERIA
A spokesman for the National Transitional Council said it would seek to extradite Qadhafi's relatives from Algeria, which is alone among Libya's neighbors in not recognizing the NTC.
Nearly 60 countries have acknowledged the NTC as Libya's legitimate authority. Russia, China, India, South Africa and Brazil are among those which have so far withheld recognition.
Algeria's acceptance of Qadhafi's wife and offspring angered Libyan leaders, who want the ousted autocrat and his entourage to face justice for years of repressive rule.
Abdel Jalil, the NTC chairman, who was once Qadhafi's justice minister, called on the Algerian government to hand over any of the former leader's sons on its wanted list. He said he expected the fugitives to move on from Algeria before long.
Algeria, which previously opposed sanctions and a no-fly zone against Qadhafi, has an authoritarian government which is anxious about Arab revolts lapping near its borders.
"I would argue the Algerian regime is making a major blunder, miscalculating monstrously," Fawaz Gerges, an analyst at the London School of Economics, told the BBC.
"The Algerian regime itself is not immune from the revolutionary momentum taking place in the Arab world."
A visit to a Tripoli beach compound used by Qadhafi's children and members of his elite revealed a life of opulence and privilege that many Libyans could barely dream of.
Saadi Qadhafi's chalet was strewn with designer clothes, including some unworn suits, and about 100 pairs of shoes. Aisha's house boasted 13 bedrooms and gold-plated cutlery.
Anti-Qadhafi fighters now sleep in the bedrooms of their former rulers, whose gated compound has tennis courts, football pitches and dining centers, along with magnificent sea views.
Many Libyans were overjoyed at the fall of Qadhafi, which followed that of longtime rulers in Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year, but have been chilled by evidence of mass killings in Tripoli as his forces fought losing battles with rebels.
A week after Qadhafi's fall, Tripoli's two million people remain without running water or electricity. Banks, pharmacies and many other shops are still closed. The stench of garbage and sewage still pervades the city, despite clean-up efforts.
A council spokesman said a pumping station for Tripoli's water supply that lies in the pro-Qadhafi town of Sabha had been damaged and could not be reached for repair.
However, a report by the European Union's humanitarian office (ECHO), said pro-Qadhafi forces in Sirte had cut two-thirds of the water supply to Tripoli, most of which comes from the "Great Man-made River," a huge project built under Qadhafi that pumps out water from under the Sahara desert.
In the port city of Misrata, scene of heavy fighting earlier in the conflict, security forces were holding 332 former Qadhafi fighters in a school, where the captives sat on mattresses in the classrooms, some reading the Koran.
There was no evidence the men had been mistreated.
"These are Qadhafi soldiers who surrendered in battles around Misrata and Zlitan," said senior warder Haitham Mohammed. "We will eventually take them to court."
Some prisoners told Reuters, in the presence of the warder, that they had been tricked into fighting for Qadhafi.
"We were told we were fighting foreigners, Al-Qaeda, so we fought to liberate Misrata but when we came here we were surprised," said one, named Ali Sadiq Hamuda.
"I'm ashamed that I came here with wrong ideas but now I have discovered the truth – the Qadhafi regime was bad."