Moamer Kadhafi is still in Libya, his media mouthpiece said on Wednesday, as his henchmen sought refuge in Niger and opposition fighters moved in against the last of his forces.
"I can tell you that I spoke with Kadhafi very recently," Mishan al-Juburi, the owner of Arrai Oruba television, the sole media organisation still in contact with the fugitive dictator, told AFP.
"He is in Libya, in very good spirits, feels strong, is not afraid, and would be happy to die fighting against the occupiers," Juburi, a former Iraqi MP who owns the Syria-based channel, said by telephone.
"His son Seif al-Islam is in the same state of mind," added Juburi, whose channel has broadcast a number of audio messages by Kadhafi and his son since they went into hiding after Tripoli was overrun by rebel fighters last month.
Asked how he makes contact with Kadhafi, Juburi said: "When I need to talk to him, I send him a message, or he contacts me when he wants to pass a message."
Libya's new rulers are anxious to arrest Kadhafi and put him on trial, thus sealing their hold on the country.
Speculation has swirled concerning the fallen leader's whereabouts, with members of the National Transitional Council (NTC) now ruling Libya putting him in the past week variously in his hometown Sirte, in Bani Walid southeast of Tripoli, or at Sabha in the deeper south.
On Monday, rumours flew that he had crossed into Niger in a military convoy but Niamey's Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum was adamant the ousted Libyan leader did not enter the country.
"The truth is that several people, of varying importance, arrived in Niger. That's it, there are no high-profile figures, certainly not Kadhafi himself nor any of his sons," Bazoum told AFP.
The large convoy of civilian and military vehicles entered Niger and drove through the city of Agadez, raising questions about whether Kadhafi had fled the country with them.
Washington said that while some senior officials of the ousted regime were in the convoy, Kadhafi was not believed to be among them.
"We don't have any evidence that Kadhafi is anywhere but in Libya at the moment," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
As the hunt intensified for the deposed autocrat, who is also wanted by the International Criminal Court to face charges of crimes against humanity, NTC fighters were poised to battle his troops in their remaining strongholds, Bani Walid, Sabha and Sirte.
Pro-Kadhafi forces have been a given a Saturday deadline to surrender and lay down their arms, in a bid to spare further bloodshed.
At Bani Walid, 170 kilometres (105 miles) southeast of Tripoli, negotiators were still seeking to orchestrate the peaceful surrender of the oasis town.
"The negotiations were successful yesterday and we are waiting for the NTC to give us the green light to go in," said the NTC's chief negotiator, Abdullah Kenshil.
NTC leaders say they are committed to avoiding bloodshed in Bani Walid, even after a delegation sent to the town on Tuesday retreated after being fired upon.
"The elders have joined the revolution," Kenshil said, adding some of them were in Tripoli and others were back in Bani Walid after armed men loyal to Kadhafi initially prevented them from returning.
Hours later the situation behind the frontlines of the pro-NTC forces was still tense, as political and military leaders gave varying accounts of how successful the efforts were at avoiding a full-fledged battle.
Some affiliated with Libya's interim rulers said the negotiations were close to a breakthrough that would prevent bloodshed, while others insisted the time for talking was over.
In the hamlet of Wishtata, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the front, Colonel Abdullah Abu Asara said his volunteer fighters were ready for any eventuality.
"We are fully ready to attack, we are just waiting for the command from the National Transitional Council, we are under their command now," he told AFP.
NTC forces, meanwhile, advanced at least eight kilometres (five miles) towards 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.
One government soldier was killed and two wounded, while at least one of Kadhafi's men lost his life, the commanders added.
The fighting east of Sirte brought NTC fighters to within 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."
NATO in its latest operational update released on Wednesday said its warplanes had bombed six tanks, six armoured fighting vehicles, four armed vehicles, a munitions store and an artillery piece in Sirte the previous day.