By Ben Hubbard
ABOVE PHOTO: Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi gestures to his supporters in Tripoli, Libya. As rebels swarmed into Tripoli late Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011, and Gadhafi’s son and one-time heir apparent Seif al-Islam was arrested, Gadhafi’s rule was all but over, even though some loyalists continued to resist.
(AP Photo/Pier Paolo Cito, File)
TRIPOLI, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi warned from hiding Thursday that tribes loyal to him were well-armed and preparing for battle, hours after rebels hoping for a peaceful surrender extended the deadline for loyalist forces to give up in the longtime Libyan leader’s hometown.
Gadhafi’s audio statement, broadcast by Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, came as the rebels said they were closing in on the former dictator.
“We won’t surrender again; we are not women, we will keep fighting,” Gadhafi said. His voice was recognizable, and Al-Rai has previously broadcast several statements by Gadhafi and his sons.
Rebels have been hunting for the Libyan leader since he was forced into hiding after they swept into Tripoli on Aug. 20 and gained control of most of the capital after days of fierce fighting.
Opposition fighters, backed by NATO airstrikes, have been advancing toward three regime strongholds: Sirte; Bani Walid, 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli; and Sabha, in the southern desert. All three places had been given a deadline of Saturday to surrender. While the deadline extension was officially only for Sirte, rebels said it would also include Bani Walid and Sabha.
There has been speculation that Gadhafi is hiding in one of those three towns.
Gadhafi’s wife, Safiya, sons Mohammed and Hannibal, and daughter Aisha fled to Algeria on Monday, firm evidence that the longtime leader has lost his grip on the country. Aisha gave birth to her fourth child Tuesday in Algeria.
The Algerian newspaper El Watan reported that Gadhafi himself also sought refuge, but the Algerian president refused to take his phone calls. Algeria’s foreign minister insisted Thursday that Gadhafi is not in Algeria. Asked on Europe-1 radio if Gadhafi could be given asylum, Mourad Medelci said, “I don’t believe so.”
Gadhafi was last heard on Aug. 25 in an audio recording calling on supporters to defend Tripoli.
In Thursday’s message, Gadhafi said the tribes in Sirte and Bani Walid are armed and “there is no way they will submit.” He called for continued resistance, warning “the battle will be long and let Libya burn.”
But the rebels, who have effectively ended Gadhafi’s rule, insist the fight is going in their favor.
“The regime is dying,” rebel council spokesman Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga said late Wednesday, after two of Gadhafi’s sons made conflicting statements on Arab television stations — with one vowing to fight until death and the other offering to negotiate a truce. “Gadhafi’s family is trying to find an exit,” Ghoga said. “They only have to surrender completely to the rebels and we will offer them a fair trial. We won’t hold negotiations with them over anything.”
Ghoga said Thursday that the rebels had extended the deadline for Sirte’s surrender, giving the loyalist forces there one more week. “There are good indications that things are moving in the right direction,” he said, including that the rebels have captured a city near Sirte.
Ahmed Said, an adviser to the interior minister in the rebels’ interim government, said rebel forces had captured Gadhafi’s foreign minister. He did not identify him by name, but “can confirm that he is in custody.” He offered no further details to confirm the capture.
A week ago, Foreign Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi told British broadcaster Channel 4 that Gadhafi’s rule was over.
Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, the Libyan prime minister under Gadhafi, gave the rebels another boost Thursday, telling al Arabiya television that he supports the insurgents. He said he was in touch with the rebel leadership “and we notified them that we are with the people and we are ready to serve our country in the future.”
Thursday marks the coup against the monarchy of King Idris by 27-year-old Gadhafi and a group of military officers. Gadhafi took undisputed power and became a symbol of anti-Western defiance in a Third World recently liberated from its European colonial rulers. A brutal dictator, his regime was unchallenged until the uprising that began in February. Rebels say they are carefully pulling together clues about Gadhafi’s whereabouts from captured regime fighters and others, and learned earlier this week that Gadhafi and two of his sons — longtime heir-apparent Seif al-Islam and former special forces commander al-Saadi — were in the loyalist-controlled town of Bani Walid, said Ghoga. But, he added, it’s not clear where they are now.
Sixty world leaders and top-level envoys are meeting Thursday in Paris on Libya’s future. The gathering is likely to focus on unfreezing billions in Libyan funds held abroad and reconciling differences over how to deal with the new Libya. The lessons of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and years of insurgent violence there will loom large.
The European Union, meanwhile, is lifting its sanctions on Libyan ports, banks and energy firms, officials said Thursday.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the goal was to provide resources to the interim government to help kick-start the North African country’s economy.