Gadhafi forces fight back, as reward offered for strongman
TRIPOLI—Fighting raged Wednesday as Moammar Gadhafi troops fought back near his Tripoli compound a day after it was captured, while rebels offered a $1.7 million reward for the elusive strongman, dead or alive.
As the United Nations called a meeting to discuss the unlocking by backers of the insurgency of billions of dollars of Libyan assets, France said it invited “friends of Libya” to a forum in September on the country’s future.
Meanwhile, Washington said Libya’s stockpile of weapons of mass destruction had been secured and that it was confident the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) could set up governing structures after overruning Tripoli.
As a group of mostly foreign journalists who had been confined to Tripoli’s Rixos Hotel were freed, Italian media said four Italian journalists were kidnapped in Libya and two French journalists were wounded in Tripoli.
The rebels also made key diplomatic gains when two of Gadhafi’s staunchest African allies—Chad and Burkina Faso—said they recognise the NTC as the sole representative of the Libyan people.
During the afternoon, thick smoke hung over the Bab al-Aziziya complex, where rebels and Gadhafi forces were fighting with light arms, heavy machine guns, rocket propelled grenades and mortars, an AFP reporter said.
Fighting also spread to the nearby Abu Slim area, where loyalists were on the attack, in marked contrast to Tuesday’s battle for Bab al-Aziziya when they fled as the rebels breached the gates.
However, rebel commanders said they were determined to push the loyalist troops out of the area.
Many streets were deserted, with commanders saying dozens of pro-Gadhafi snipers had taken up positions.
“There are snipers above and around the perimeter of Bab al-Aziziya; there are dozens of them but we don’t know where they are,” said a rebel chief, Nuri Mohammed.
A rebel military spokesman speaking to Al-Jazeera television said “Libyan territory is 90 to 95 percent under the control of the rebellion.”
Colonel Abdullah Abu Afra said “the fall of Bab al-Aziziyah marked the end of the Gadhafi regime in Tripoli and in Libya.”
Rebels said they had found no trace of Gadhafi when they swarmed through his compound on Tuesday, and the whereabouts of him and his family remains a mystery.
However, the former colonel broadcast a message early Wednesday on the website of a TV station headed by his son, Seif al-Islam.
Gadhafi said he had abandoned his compound in a “tactical withdrawal” after it had been wrecked by NATO warplanes.
“Bab al-Aziziya was nothing but a heap of rubble after it was the target of 64 NATO missiles and we withdrew from it for tactical reasons,” he said.
In a later audio message on Syria-based Arrai Oruba television, Gadhafi boasted that he had taken to the streets of Tripoli without being recognised.
“I walked incognito, without anyone seeing me, and I saw youths ready to defend their city,” he said, without specifying when he did his walkabout.
He also urged “the residents, the tribes, the elderly to go into the streets… and cleanse Tripoli of rats”— referring to the rebels.
Wherever he may be, the rebel National Transitional Council wants him, dead or alive, and has put a $1.7 million (1.2 million euro) price on his head.
“The NTC supports the initiative of businessmen who are offering two million dinars for the capture of Moamer Kadhafi, dead or alive,” NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil said in Benghazi.
Abdel Jalil also offered amnesty to “members of (Gadhafi’s) close circle who kill him or capture him.”
Gadhafi spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told Arrai Oruba that more than 6,500 “volunteers” had arrived in Tripoli to fight for the regime, and called for more.
Rebels who secured Tripoli’s airport on Sunday said it was still under sporadic attack by Gadhafi fighters, with snipers along the road from the city, and that a rocket on Tuesday had damaged an airplane on the runway.
Manager Arabi Mustafa said that once the security problems are resolved and water and electricity restored, the airport would be reopened.
Elsewhere, rebels advancing towards Sirte were blocked Wednesday in the town of Bin Jawad as loyalists kept a stiff resistance.
After taking Ras Lanuf, 150 kilometres (93 miles) west of Sirte, the rebels had advanced up to Bin Jawad, but were stopped by heavy artillery fire, rebel commander Fawzi Bukatif told AFP.
“Gadhafi’s forces are still fighting, we are surprised. We thought they would surrender with the fall of Tripoli,” Bukatif said in the nearby coastal town of Zuwaytina.
“Maybe something or somebody is behind them,” he said, adding “maybe” when asked if he was referring to Gadhafi or his sons.
President Nicolas Sarkozy said he had invited the countries he regards as “the friends of Libya” to talks in Paris on September 1 on the future of the country after Gadhafi.
“We have decided in full agreement with (British Prime Minister) David Cameron to hold a great international conference to help the free Libya of tomorrow, to show that we’re passing towards the future,” Sarkozy said.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council was due to open a meeting Wednesday after a US request to ease sanctions on Libya and unlock billions of frozen assets to help the rebel council rebuild the country and its institutions.
Washington wants to send $1.5 billion of humanitarian aid while Britain and France also said they were working to unfreeze Libyan assets blocked by Security Council sanctions.
For its part, the Pentagon said Libya’s stockpile of chemical weapons are “secure” but that an arsenal of thousands of shoulder-launched missiles remained cause for concern.
Asked if sites containing chemical weapons, including over 10 tons of mustard gas, were safe, spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said: “Yes.”
Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, also said Washington has “confidence in the TNC” and is “encouraged by they way they have conducted themselves so far.”
In Tripoli, journalists trapped at Tripoli’s Rixos Hotel since Monday walked free while two others who suffered gunshot wounds covering the fighting outside Gadhafi’s compound recuperated, their employers said.
But the fate of four Italians kidnapped in Libya was worrisome. Italian media reports said two worked for the top Italian daily Corriere della Sera, one for La Stampa and the fourth for Avenire, a Roman Catholic paper.
A French cameraman working for state-owned France 2 network, Bruno Girodon, and Paris Match photographer Alvaro Canovas were both wounded while covering Tuesday’s rebel assault on Bab al-Aziziya, their employers said.
Neither was in a life-threatening condition.
And as Gadhafi’s whereabouts remained unknown, Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole, whose country recognised the rebel council along with Chad on Wednesday, said when asked by a journalist if the embattled Libyan strongman could seek refugee in Burkina: “If that is his wish, why not.”
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