Anti-Kadhafi fighters said Tuesday they had captured the airport and a garrison in the defeated Libyan despot’s southern redoubt Sabha, as fighting raged in two of his northern strongholds.
The battlefield victories came as the United States and its allies prepared to meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York to discuss the future of the new Libya.
Moamer Kadhafi, for decades an outlandish fixture at the UN gathering with his tent and rambling speeches, will be absent in New York as the National Transitional Council rebels who ousted him are ushered into the spotlight.
The capture of the airport and garrison at Sabha, a strategic desert city 800 kilometres (500 miles) south of Tripoli, was announced early Tuesday by Mohammed Wardugu, spokesman for the NTC’s “Desert Shield Brigade.”
Fighting still raged in some quarters of Sabha but the pro-NTC forces would take total control of the city “in some hours,” said Wardugu, brother of brigade commander Barka Wardugu.
He said NTC forces had also seized one of Kadhafi’s senior generals and forced more than 300 of his mercenaries to flee.
“Our fighters ambushed then and killed, wounded or captured many,” Wardugu told AFP in the eastern city of Benghazi, without giving figures.
“General Belgacem Al-Abaaj, Kadhafi’s intelligence chief in the Al-Khofra region, was captured” on Monday some 100 kilometres (60 miles) from Sabha, he said.
Abaaj, who had been sought by the NTC forces for committing “crimes … and sabotage” was seized with members of his family who were travelling in five four-wheel drive vehicles.
NATO said on Tuesday it had the previous day targeted Sabha with air strikes, taking out two air missile systems, two military air radar defence facilities and three air missile facilities.
It also struck an armed vehicle and multiple rocket system in Sirte; six anti-aircraft guns and a command and control node around the nearby towns of Waddan and Hun; and another command and control node near Bani Walid.
The NATO strikes around Sirte came as dozens of new regime fighters stormed the nearby town of Sultana, braving rocket and artillery attacks as they marched towards Kadhafi’s hometown.
Shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) and “Hold your heads high, you are Libyans,” the fighters drove into Sultana — the site of steady fighting in the past two days — pushing Kadhafi’s diehards back towards Sirte.
“They want a war, they are getting one. We will kick their butts,” said one of the fighters, Saleh Drisi, as he jumped from his pick-up truck and barged into a house, searching for Kadhafi loyalists.
The column of fighters advancing on Sirte from the west were to join other NTC forces already at the gates of the city who have been fighting Kadhafi loyalists there since the weekend.
Fighting had also raged on Monday in Bani Walid when NTC fighters attacked the oasis town southeast of Tripoli where Kadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam is believed holed up, possibly with his father.
Kadhafi, Seif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi have been on the run since rebels overran Tripoli on August 23. They are wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.
Tuesday’s meeting in New York will follow the first talks between US President Barack Obama and Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the NTC — now recognised as Libya’s legitimate leaders.
The talks will “confirm the start of a new phase which began with the Paris summit and the beginning of an increased role in the United Nations,” said French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was hailed as a hero when he visited Tripoli last week, would also join Tuesday’s talks.
One of the aims of the meeting would be to replace the “contact group” with a “group of friends of Libya, whose make-up and function will be determined by the secretary general,” he added.
“The new Libya will symbolically be fully integrated into the United Nations,” Juppe said, as the green, red and black flag used by the old Libyan monarchy was raised Monday for the first time at the UN.
Created on March 29 in London, the political contact group on Libya gathers 30 countries and several international organisations including the United Nations, NATO and the Arab League.
It has worked to support the revolt against Kadhafi who ruled Libya for four decades, including unblocking the fallen regime’s funds which had been frozen by governments around the world.
In Benghazi, the spokesman for the pro-NTC forces fighting in and around Sabha launched an urgent appeal for international aid on behalf of the residents in the region.
Wardugu appealed to “France, Britain, the United States, to all Western nations, to the Arab countries and to humanitarian organisations to bring in aid,” as people were suffering from a lack of food, water, electricity and medicine.
“Women, children, the elderly are dying every day. Some of the injured are transported to Benghazi (2,500 kilometres away) to receive treatment,” he said.