Libya oasis town under control, while Gaddafi henchmen rumoured in Niger

AFP , Wednesday 7 Sep 2011

As the deadline given for pro-Gaddafi forces approaches, clashes break out close to Gaddafi strongholds, meanwhile Niger denies the embattled leader or his sons have crossed into the country

Tribal elders, bottom, speak to Abdalla Kenshil, chief rebel negotiator, not in the picture, during negotiations in a mosque at a checkpoint between Tarhouna and Bani Walid, Tuesday, (AP).

Libya's new leaders on Wednesday declared negotiations for the loyalist-held oasis town of Bani Walid a success, as top officials of ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi's regime sought refuge in Niger.

"The negotiations were successful yesterday and we are waiting for the National Transitional Council (NTC) to give us the green light to go in," said Abdullah Kenshil, who held talks with Bani Walid elders on Tuesday.

"The elders have joined the revolution," he said, adding that some of them were now in Tripoli, and others were back in Bani Walid, where pro-Gaddafi armed men initially prevented them from returning.

Witnesses reported seeing the tribal elders heading away from Bani Walid, 170 kilometres (105 miles) southeast of Tripoli, towards the nearby town of Tarhuna late on Tuesday.

A field commander saw the rebuffing of the elders as a bad omen.

"I think there will be a fierce battle in Bani Walid. Armed groups are occupying Bani Walid so we must free it," commander Colonel Abdullah Abu Asara told AFP.

The outcome of negotiations concerning Bani Walid, a bastion of the powerful Warfalla tribe and hometown of NTC leader Mahmud Jibril, has created some anxiety over how and when NTC forces can move in.

Pro-Gaddafi forces in Bani Walid, Sabha in the south and Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown on the coast, have been a given a Saturday deadline to surrender and lay down their arms, in a bid to spare further bloodshed.

Washington, meanwhile, said that some senior officials of the ousted regime were in a convoy that fled across Libya's southern border with Niger late Monday, but that Gaddafi was not believed to be among them.

The large convoy of civilian and military vehicles entered Niger and drove through the city of Agadez, raising questions about whether the toppled strongman had fled the country with them.

"We don't have any evidence that Gaddafi is anywhere but in Libya at the moment," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

She called on Niger to cooperate with the NTC in bringing potential Libyan war criminals to justice.

"We have strongly urged the Nigerien officials to detain those members of the regime who may be subject to prosecution, to ensure that they confiscate any weapons that are found, and to ensure that any state property of the government of Libya -- money, jewels, etc. -- also be impounded so that it can be returned to the Libyan people," she said.

Niger's Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum was adamant the ousted Libyan leader was not in the convoy.

"The truth is that several people, of varying importance, arrived in Niger. That's it, there are no high-profile figures, certainly not Gaddafi himself nor any of his sons," Bazoum told AFP.

The Libyan strongman has not been seen since rebels stormed Tripoli on August 20, although as recently as last Thursday he aired audio messages calling on his supporters to prepare for guerrilla war.

Niger's southern neighbour Burkina Faso on Tuesday ruled out granting asylum to Gaddafi, saying it did not want to create problems for the west African country.

"We cannot grant him asylum because for the past three years we have not had good relations with him," said government spokesman Alain Traore. "We don't see why we would stick our neck out for him and create problems for ourselves."

On Monday Gaddafi's spokesman Mussa Ibrahim insisted his boss was still in Libya, in "excellent health" and ready with his sons to fight to the death.

"He is in a place that those scums did not reach. He is fighting inside Libya," Ibrahim told Syria's Arrai television.

NTC forces advanced at least eight kilometres (five miles) towards Moamer Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte in heavy fighting on Tuesday, commanders said, stressing that the clashes did not mark the launch of an all-out bid to capture the city which remains in the hands of Gaddafi forces.

One government soldier was killed and two wounded, while at least one of Gaddafi's men lost his life, the commanders added.

The fighting east of Sirte brought NTC fighters to within less than 80 kilometres (50 miles) of the city, one commander told AFP.

"The clashes were very intense," said the commander, Mustafa Bendardaf.

"Five enemy vehicles were taken out. Three were destroyed in NATO air strikes and two were captured by our men," he said.

An AFP correspondent behind the frontline heard intense artillery exchanges throughout the day.

Another NTC commander, Adel Semfez, said that the fighting had been sparked by a reconnoitre launched at dawn by a unit led by famed rebel commander Selim Nabus, which had ambushed a pro-Gaddafi convoy, destroying four vehicles and capturing a fifth.

"It was a fairly routine engagement for this front line," he added, stressing that it did not mark the launch of a major offensive.

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