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Tue 16 Aug 2011 03:10 PM

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Gaddafi’s choice is to fight or flee

As rebels press on, Gaddafi must choose to seek talks or defend Libya's capital

Gaddafi’s choice is to fight or flee
The battle between rebels and Gaddafis forces to gain dominance over Libya has entered its sixth month

The battle to control Libya has entered its final phase when
Muammar Gaddafi must make a choice: to seek a negotiated exit or to defend his
capital to the last bullet.

Rebels with support from NATO warplanes have, over the past
48 hours, taken key towns around Gaddafi's stronghold in Tripoli in a dramatic
series of advances which cut the city off from supplies of fuel and food.

Rebel offensives have, in the past, turned into headlong
retreats. But if they hold their ground, the end of Gaddafi's 41-year rule will
be closer than at any time since the conflict began six months ago.

A US official said that for the first time in the conflict,
government forces on Sunday fired a Scud missile - an act that was pointless
from a military point of view but signalled the desperation of pro-Gaddafi
forces.

"The Libyan regime may or may not collapse forthwith
but it now looks like it will happen sooner or later," said Daniel Korski,
a fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations.

He added: "The manner of its collapse, however, and the
method of the rebel takeover will be just as important as the conduct of the
war."

Flushed by their success in getting so close to Tripoli,
some rank-and-file rebels on Monday spoke of attacking the capital next. But
analysts said that will not be the favoured option for rebel commanders.

Gaddafi will throw all the men and weapons he has left into
a defence of the capital, civilian casualties in urban fighting will be high,
and sections of the population in Tripoli are likely to oppose the rebels.

Even if Gaddafi's opponents were able to win that fight, the
bloodshed would create grievances and vendettas which could make the capital - and maybe even the country  - ungovernable.

"Any fight for Tripoli can be expected to be extremely
bloody," said David Hartwell, North Africa and Middle East analyst at IHS
Jane's, a defence and security consultancy,

"My guess is the strategy is to isolate the capital and
start applying pressure ... They [the rebels] seem to be trying to cut the
links to the capital, one assumes with the aim of not having to assault the
capital."

But will that approach work? Encircling Tripoli and cutting
off supplies could produce any one of three outcomes, or a combination of the
three.

Starved of fuel and unable to bring in more weapons and
reinforcements, elements of Gaddafi's security forces in Tripoli may decide the
best way to save themselves is to lay down their arms or cross over and join
the rebels.

Fractures in Gaddafi's security apparatus could be the
signal for the second outcome: Gaddafi's underground opponents launch an
uprising from within the city.

Representatives of the clandestine opposition have told
Reuters they are waiting for the right moment to begin a revolt. Some of them
have weapons.

It will take time though before Tripoli is ripe for an
uprising, said Shashank Joshi, an analyst with the Royal United Services
Institute in London.

"It is not on the edge of a cusp of falling and it's
entirely possible that many people in Tripoli are not really aware of what has
happened at Zawiyah. So it may not yet bring us to the tipping point."

The third possibility is that Gaddafi will decide to
negotiate an exit deal. That would possibly involve him and his family going
into exile in a state which will not hand him over for prosecution to the
International Criminal Court.

People who know him say Gaddafi - beneath his eccentric
image - is a pragmatist who will cut a deal if that is what it takes to save
the lives of his family.

But they also say this will not happen until he is convinced
he can no longer win. His spokesman on Sunday denied there were any negotiations
on Gaddafi's departure.

"If he is going to try to strike a deal he will leave
it until the last minute," said Hartwell of IHS Janes. "He still
thinks he has something to fight for."

The worst case scenario for the rebels and their Western
backers is that the strategy of strangling Gaddafi's capital will not dislodge
him. In this event, there will be a battle for Tripoli and the only thing
certain then is that there will be huge loss of life.

"It would not be surprising if Gaddafi were to go out
with all guns blazing so long as no deal is on the table and he does not have
an exit strategy," said Anthony Skinner, an analyst with risk advisory
firm Maplecroft.

"The colonel may booby trap Tripoli and loyalists may
also put up a fight to the death."