TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Muammar Gaddafi is in a desert town outside Tripoli planning a fightback, a Libyan military chief said on Thursday, as Libya’s interim rulers conferred with world powers on reshaping a nation torn by 42 years of one-man rule and six months of war.
Abdel Majid Mlegta, coordinator of the Tripoli military operations room, told Reuters “someone we trust” had said Gaddafi fled to Bani Walid, 150 km (95 miles) southeast of the capital, with his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senoussi three days after Tripoli fell last week.
“They wanted to set up an operations room there and conduct aggressive operations against us,” he said. “We have talked to notables from Bani Walid to arrest him and hand him over. They haven’t responded. We are assessing our position.”
Mlegta said Ali al-Ahwal, Gaddafi’s coordinator for tribes, was also in Bani Walid, a stronghold of the powerful Warfalla tribe, Libya’s biggest at about a million strong among a population of six million, but by no means solidly pro-Gaddafi.
“In four days we will come with up a solution. We are capable of ending the crisis but military action is out of the question right now,” Mlegta said.
“We cannot attack this tribe because many of our brigades in Benghazi and Zintan are from Bani Walid. The sons of Bani Walid hold the key to the solution.”
Fighters of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) said this week that they were 30 km from Bani Walid. The council has given pro-Gaddafi forces in the coastal city of Sirte until Saturday to surrender or face force.
The war may not be over until Gaddafi is killed or captured, but Libyans are keen to move on.
Russia recognized the NTC as Libya’s new leaders gathered with their international partners in Paris to coordinate political and economic reconstruction 42 years to the day since Gaddafi toppled King Idris in a military coup in 1969.
While the conference is focused on rebuilding Libya, some participants will also be jostling for a share in postwar contracts in the wealthy North African oil and gas producer.
Russia abstained from a U.N. Security Council vote in March that allowed Western military intervention in Libya but then repeatedly accused NATO forces of overstepping their mandate to protect civilians and of siding with rebels in the civil war.
Some in Libya suggest that Tripoli may slight nations like Russia and China in favor of stalwarts of the intervention such as Britain, France, the United States and Qatar.
Eager to meet immediate civilian needs, the NTC is expected to push for rapid access to billions of dollars in foreign-held Libyan assets frozen under U.N. sanctions on Gaddafi.
The United States and Britain have won U.N. permission to unfreeze $1.5 billion each of Libyan assets and France has received approval for the release of 1.5 billion euros ($2.16 billion) out of a total 7.6 billion euros.
NATO warplanes are still harrying pro-Gaddafi forces in the coastal city of Sirte and some desert towns in the interior.
With the NTC’s Saturday ultimatum looming, some civilians have fled from Sirte, fearing a bloody showdown, and Gaddafi’s son Saadi began talking of a peaceful solution.
“We were talking about negotiations based on ending bloodshed,” Saadi, whose whereabouts are not clear, said on al-Arabiya television on Wednesday, saying his father had authorized him to parley with the NTC.
But a starkly different message of defiance came from Gaddafi’s better-known son Saif al-Islam.
“We must wage a campaign of attrition day and night until these lands are cleansed from these gangs and traitors,” he said in a statement broadcast on a Syrian-owned TV channel.
“We assure people that we are standing fast and the commander is in good condition,” Saif said, adding that there were 20,000 loyalist soldiers ready to defend Sirte.
The head of Tripoli’s military council, Abdul Hakim Belhadj, told Reuters he had spoken to Saadi by telephone and had promised him decent treatment if he surrenders.
“We want to spare bloodletting, therefore negotiation and surrender is preferable,” Belhadj said. “If this does not happen there is no other way except a military solution.”
With Gaddafi driven from power, the “Friends of Libya” conference in Paris gives the NTC its first platform to address the world. Its chairman, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, will outline plans for a new constitution, elections within 18 months and ways to avoid any descent into postwar Iraq-style bloodletting.
“We have to help the National Transitional Council because the country is devastated, the humanitarian situation is difficult and there’s a lack of water, electricity and fuel,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on RTL radio.
Libyans who revolted against Gaddafi in February needed NATO air power to help them win, but, given their country’s unhappy colonial history, they remain wary of foreign meddling.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas in Tripoli, Emma Farge, Robert Birsel and Alex Dziadosz in Benghazi, Giles Elgood, Richard Valdmanis and Alastair Macdonald Catherine Bremer, Brian Love and John Irish in Paris, Keith Weir in London and Luke Baker in Brussels;Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Jon Boyle)
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