BENGHAZI, Libya — Libya’s rebel leadership on Tuesday ordered forces loyal to longtime leader Moammar Gaddafi to surrender by Saturday or face a military assault aimed at completing the rebels’ takeover of the country.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebel’s governing Transitional National Council, said his forces would attack Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte, where the loyalists have gathered, on Saturday, the day when celebrations marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan will end.
“This window of opportunity closes with the end of the official holiday Eid al-Fitr," Abdel Jalil said. “We can act decisively to end this in a military manner. We do not wish to do so, but we cannot wait any longer.”
In Tripoli, another top rebel official, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Tarhouni, told reporters that rebels hunting Gaddafi “have a good idea where he is” and expect to catch him soon. Tarhouni said there could be no negotiations with Gaddafi but that he was “still hopeful” of an agreement with tribal elders in Sirte that would avert bloodshed in the town 278 miles east of the capital.
Sirte lies along the coastal road that links eastern Libya to the west. What is happening inside the city cannot be independently confirmed by reporters — it is too dangerous to travel there, and nearly impossible to reach residents.
But pro-Gaddafi forces have apparently retreated from towns taken by rebel fighters and sought refuge in Sirte. It is even possible that Gaddafi himself is hiding there. Gaddafi’s wife and three of his children — including a daughter in the late stages of pregnancy — fled to Algeria on Monday, and news services reported that the daughter gave birth to a baby girl on Tuesday.
NATO has carried out bombing campaigns around Sirte over the past few days, and military leaders in the east said rebel fighters have surrounded the city. They have faced fierce resistance from Sirte residents in the past.
Negotiations with tribal leaders have been going on for days now, as rebels consolidated control over much of the rest of the country, but the talks appear to be faltering. There is no trust between the rebels and the residents of Sirte, said Mustafa Sagazly, the deputy interior minister for the rebel government.
“We have a major problem. Gaddafi’s media brainwashed them, and they think we’re coming to kill their people, steal their property and rape their women,” Sagazly said. He said negotiations are being conducted by phone because there is not enough trust to meet in person.
A military brigade loyal to Gaddafi is hunkered down inside Sirte and is refusing all talks with rebel leaders, Sagazly said. As a result, tribal leaders have been forced to negotiate in secret.
The leaders are seeking assurances that no revenge killings will be carried out and that they can have a role in the new Libya, including the formation of a local council, Sagazly said. So far they’ve refused to give up their weapons.
“We are asking them to surrender their weapons to us, but this is something they don’t want to do,” he said. “So we might ask for just medium and heavy weaponry and allow them to keep personal protection weapons.”
Abdel Jalil warned that rebel forces would not “deal lightly with anyone who poses a threat to the revolution.”
In a news conference, Tarhouni, an economist and former lecturer at the University of Washington, defended the rebels’ Saturday deadline for the surrender of Sirte.
“Many times, unfortunately, to preserve blood you have to shed blood,” he said. “The faster we get this done, the less blood will be shed.” He added later that negotiations “for a peaceful transfer of power” were still taking place with tribal elders. “I am still hopeful we will not get any military conflict in this area,” he said.
Tarhouni said there were no negotiations with Gaddafi. “Gaddafi is now fleeing, and we have a good idea where he is,” he said. “We have no doubt we will catch him.”
Asked if the rebels were afraid that Gaddafi would attack oil refineries, Tarhouni said Gaddafi controlled everything in Libya just seven months ago. “But today I am standing in Tripoli, my free capital, while he is moving from sewer to sewer. Therefore, myself and the Libyan people, we are not afraid of this coward and whatever is left of the mercenaries that are with him.”
Tarhouni said another Gaddafi stronghold, the desert town of Sabha about 480 miles south of Tripoli, “has always been a fortress of Gaddafi” but that rebel sympathizers there have been tempted to rise up many times. “We are hoping that in the next few days, a week or so, you will hear better news about Sabha in particular,” he said.
Meanwhile, life was steadily returning to normal on the streets of Tripoli. More shops were open Tuesday for people to buy gifts for Eid, and there were few checkpoints, with relatively heavy traffic compared to the past week. Even a handful of traffic police were back on the streets.