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Sun 4 Sep 2011 04:48 PM

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Libyan army says Gaddafi bastion in its grasp

Fighters hope to take pro-Gaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid without resistance

Libyan army says Gaddafi bastion in its grasp
Rebels inspect an airplane destroyed by a NATO air strike at the Bir Durfan military base some 60km from Bani Walid

Libya's
interim council said it hoped to seize one of Muammar Gaddafi's last
strongholds without resistance on Sunday as it pursues its drive to assert
control over the whole country.

Outside
the pro-Gaddafi town of Bani Walid, a National Transitional Council (NTC)
negotiator said talks were over.

"Everything
was done yesterday, they asked us for more time and we gave them some more
hours," said Mahmoud Abdul Azil at a checkpoint 40km from the desert town.

"Today,
God willing, we will go in. There was some fighting overnight. They fired at us
first."

Abdul
Azil said NATO-backed NTC forces were just 10km from Bani Walid and inching
forward, ready to attack what he said were an estimated 100 pro-Gaddafi
fighters there if necessary.

"We
are waiting for the order for our commanders to go into the city. We have told
them we are coming. Everyone should stay at home. Hopefully it will be done
without bloodshed," he said, as warplanes of the Western alliance roared
overhead.

Anti-Gaddafi
forces have also closed in on the deposed leader's birthplace in the coastal
city of Sirte, but appear ready to allow more time for negotiations there.

"With
God's grace, we are in a position of strength. We can enter any city ... but
because of our care and desire to prevent bloodshed and avoid more destruction
to national institutions we have given a period of one week," NTC chairman
Mustafa Abdel Aziz said in the eastern city of Benghazi on Saturday.

"This
is an opportunity for these cities to announce their peaceful joining of the
revolution.”

A
spokesman for Gaddafi, who has been in hiding since his foes seized Tripoli on
Aug 23, has dismissed talk of surrender and said powerful tribal leaders were
still loyal to him.

"He's
in the country," said Moussa Ibrahim on Friday in a call from an
undisclosed location. "He's in a safe place surrounded by many people who
are prepared to protect him."

Ibrahim,
who said he did not know exactly where Gaddafi was, dismissed suggestions that
Bani Walid was ready to surrender. He said he himself had beenmoving around a
"southern suburb of Tripoli" with Gaddafi's son and heir-apparent
Saif al-Islam.

On
frontlines to the east and west of Sirte, fighters also said on Saturday they
were ready to move in.

Ahmed
al-Amal, a unit commander to the west, said: "Refugees coming out of Sirte
have told us there's no food, fuel, water or electricity in the city. Gaddafi
families in Sirte are forcing civilians to obey. They are mistreating them. A
lot of people are angry and fed up."

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Independent
accounts from Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha, deep in the Sahara desert, have not
been available as communications appear to be largely cut off. On Friday, the
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on all sides to protect
civilians and allow the agency to provide aid to Sirte.

To the
east of Sirte, whose resistance still effectively divides the country in two
between Benghazi and Tripoli, fighters were also dug in and, they said, ready to
advance.

"We
are awaiting the green light from the council," said Naji al-Maghrabi,
commander of the "Omar al-Mukhtar Brigade", named for a Libyan hero
of battles against Italian colonialists.

"If
they tell us, 'Move into Sirte now,' we will."

One
fighter, Belqassem Souliman, said: "They have no way out but to surrender
or die."

Libyans
are looking ahead to the post-war future, negotiating with foreign governments
and planning to resume the oil and gas exports that many expect to make them
rich.

Interim
oil minister Ali Tarhouni said oil production in the Misla and Sarir fields
would start on Sept 12 or 13.

In
Tripoli, life was returning to normal after last month's fighting and last
week's Muslim holiday. Traffic was heavy as fuel supplies improved. Cafes were
busy and offices opened.

On
Saturday evening, many celebrated not only new freedoms but the victory of the
national soccer team in a qualifying match for the African Cup of Nations.
Flying Libya's new flag, they beat Mozambique 1-0 in a "home" fixture
played in Cairo.