As rebels try to cement their hold and restore basic services such as water and fuel, Sirte, the longtime leader’s home town, is seen as the most important pro-Gaddafi holdout. Forces loyal to Gaddafi have reportedly retreated from towns taken by rebel fighters and have sought refuge in Sirte, 278 miles east of Tripoli, along the Mediterranean coast, and in Sabha, to the south of the capital.
“If we want to unify the whole country and if we want to declare that the war is over, we have to free Sirte,” Mustafa Sagazly, deputy interior minister of the opposition’s Transitional National Council, said in an interview Monday. “Otherwise, we’ll be in a continuous state of war.”
Opposition officials and tribal leaders who control Sirte and the surrounding areas have been negotiating for days, but there have been few signs of progress. A well-armed military brigade that is loyal to Gaddafi and hunkered down inside Sirte has rejected all talks with rebel leaders, Sagazly said, forcing tribal chiefs to negotiate in secret.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the Transitional National Council, said Tuesday that opposition leaders could no longer wait for the remaining pockets of Gaddafi supporters to compromise.
If the Sirte negotiations fail, rebel forces said, they will attack the town Saturday, when celebrations marking the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadan come to an end. The rebel military would then move south and southwest to other towns still in the hands of Gaddafi loyalists, including Bani Walid and Sabha, which are essential to restoring the supply of water and oil, commanders said.
“We can act decisively to end this in a military manner,” Abdel Jalil said. “We do not wish to do so, but we cannot wait any longer.”
NATO has carried out bombing campaigns around Sirte over the past few days, and military leaders in the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi said opposition fighters are closing in on Sirte from the east and the west. They have faced fierce resistance from the town in the past and, over the past week, have been fired at with Grad rockets and some Scud missiles. Gaddafi forces are stationed in camps inside and outside the town, rebel commanders said.
Gaddafi’s wife and three of his children — including daughter Aisha, who, according to Algeria’s Health Ministry, gave birth to a girl Tuesday — fled to the neighboring country the day before, underscoring the quick erosion of Gaddafi’s control over Libya. The rebels’ interior minister, Ahmed al-Darrad, on Tuesday called Algeria’s decision to grant asylum to Gaddafi’s family an “enemy act,” the Associated Press reported.