With Gaddafi loyalists still in control of his home town of Sirte, rebels appeared to back away Thursday from their threat to attack the town this weekend if the holdouts did not surrender.
In a tacit acknowledgment of the formidable military challenges still confronting the rebels, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that it was too early to discuss halting the NATO air campaign, which has been underway since March.
“We must see our military mission through to its conclusion,” Clinton said after meeting in Paris with leaders of the rebels’ Transitional National Council. “Coalition military operations should continue as long as civilians remain under threat of attack.”
Clinton was in France for talks with officials from more than 60 countries and international organizations on how to help Libya’s new leaders meet urgent needs and begin forming a functioning government. The day of meetings began with the formal dissolution of the Libya Contact Group, an international coalition formed five months ago to assist the rebels. It is being re-branded “Friends of the New Libya.”
Despite his messages, Gaddafi’s whereabouts remained a mystery, with rebels leaders saying he could be in the desert between Sirte, 278 miles east of the capital, and Bani Walid, a town 100 miles southeast of Tripoli. An Algerian newspaper put him in the far western Libyan town of Ghadamis, near the borders with Algeria and Tunisia.
Since the fall of the capital last week, NATO has concentrated its firepower on Sirte, carrying out airstrikes as rebels advanced toward the Mediterranean coastal city from the east and west. NATO warplanes have hit dozens of military vehicles, several command posts and military facilities, observations posts, missile and rocket launchers, and an antenna.
Rebel leaders had set a Saturday deadline for Gaddafi loyalists in Sirte and other pockets in the south and center of the country to surrender. But Col. Ahmed Bani, a spokesman for the rebel military, said Thursday that Gaddafi’s fighters in Sirte would have until Sept. 10 to lay down their weapons, giving the town’s residents time to understand the new reality in Libya.
Much of the country — including the capital, Tripoli — is controlled by the rebels, leaving Sirte isolated, save for a desert corridor leading from the town to Bani Walid and on to Sabha, about 480 miles south of Tripoli. Sirte has no electricity or water service, and it is unclear whether residents know that Gaddafi has lost control of most of the country, Bani said.