The birth of a new government in Libya, due on Sunday, was put off indefinitely amid disputes over portfolios and as Moamer Kadhafi diehards put up stiff resistance in their remaining strongholds.
National Transitional Council (NTC) number two Mahmud Jibril said last-minute haggling delayed the announcement of the new cabinet line-up before reluctantly announcing to the media that the unveiling would be postponed indefinitely.
Progress by NTC fighters hoping to crush the last pockets of resistance in Kadhafi bastions also appeared stalemated, as the fugitive’s loyalists in his hometown of Sirte and the oasis of Bani Walid refused to yield.
“The announcement of a new transitional government has been postponed indefinitely in order to finalise consultations,” Jibril told reporters in Benghazi.
But putting on a brave face, Jibril said much has been achieved to mete out several portfolios, adding that he expected consultations on the rest to be “over quickly.”
“But I believe that an essential part of these consultations was completed today.”
The administration will also look into getting women and young people to play a major role in a new government as deputy ministers and directors general of ministries, he added.
Jibril, a former Kadhafi regime official, has stood accused by some colleagues of failing to consult enough with long-standing grass roots opposition groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Jibril himself was expected to retain his post as interim premier, while Ali Tarhuni was touted to be named vice president in charge of economic affairs.
The defence portfolio was expected to go to Osama al-Juwili and oil to Abdel Rahman bin Yezza.
On the battlefield, Kadhafi diehards in his hometown Sirte and in Bani Walid stood their ground as NTC combatants tried to break their morale by preparing for a new multi-pronged advance.
NTC military spokesman Ahmed Omar Bani said he expected Kadhafi forces in Sirte and Bani Walid to be defeated in a “matter of days,” and military commanders said they had gained some ground.
“We are now 38 kilometres (23.5 miles) from Sirte,” Mustafa bin Dardaf, a commander with the Zintan Brigade, told AFP on the eastern front.
“Since the morning we have taken 20-25 kilometres. Our fighters at this moment have entered the town of Sultana and are searching for Kadhafi forces.
“There haven’t been many civilians fleeing from this side of Sirte, but many have fled out to the southeast,” he added.
Another commander, Walid al-Feturi of Al-Qabha Brigade, told AFP the fighters were clearing roads for civilians to flee Sirte.
“We are trying to get out family and children step by step,” Feturi said.
Earlier, an AFP correspondent reported that new regime forces advancing from the east had come under steady rocket and machine-gun fire.
A spokesman for Misrata Military Council, the command node for the Sirte offensive, said fighters had been expecting fierce resistance in Kadhafi’s hometown but that they were prepared to pay the ultimate price.
“We expected a lot of people to die,” said Fathi Bashaga.
“This is a Kadhafi stronghold. We plan to continue fighting Kadhafi no matter what he have to sacrifice.”
The AFP correspondent said at least 12 tanks loaded with fighters massed on Sunday east of Sirte, with crouching fighters advancing slowly through the desert scrub.
Meanwhile, doctors in a field hospital set up at a petrol station five kilometres (three miles) from the city centre, said they received five wounded and one dead by late on Sunday.
At least 40 fighters have been reported killed since NTC fighters launched an offensive against Sirte on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Bani admitted there were difficulties on the battlefield but predicted that “in a few days the situation will completely change in Sirte and Bani Walid which will be under our control.”
The “geographical nature and the strong presence of snipers” in Bani Walid is preventing a quick victory in the oasis, 180 kilometres (110 miles) southeast of Tripoli, he told reporters in Tripoli.
“We managed to enter the town on the north side that we control. We have advanced towards the centre but we were attacked by snipers and mercenaries who have launched rockets from the mountains,” he said.
Kadhafi loyalists were also putting up stiff resistance in Bani Walid, an AFP correspondent said.
The new leadership’s forces are trying to take new ground there, with some pushing further into the town as others gathered some six kilometres (3.7 miles) from its centre.
An NTC commander told AFP the battle for Bani Walid resumed at midday after unrelenting clashes from midday on Saturday until early dawn.
Correspondents heard loud explosions and intermittent gunfire from inside the town, and rockets exploded near NTC positions on the outskirts.
“There is an unconfirmed number of wounded from today’s fighting,” Dr Mabruk Kornfan said.
Some fighters left the town with loyalist prisoners, as residents of Bani Walid fled.
“There is no electricity and no food in the town,” Mohammed al-Khazmi told AFP. “There are many rebels inside fighting forces loyal to Kadhafi, but they are meeting stiff resistance.”
At least seven NTC fighters have been reported killed over the past two days in Bani Walid.
NATO has kept pounding Kadhafi’s remaining armour, saying its warplanes hit 11 targets around Sirte on Saturday, 11 targets in Al-Jufra oasis and three in Sabha in the deep south.