NORTH OF BANI WALID, Libya Fighters loyal to Libya's new rulers will resort to heavy weapons to capture a desert town held by Muammar Gaddafi's forces if needed, a senior military commander said on Wednesday, urging civilians to flee.
Daw Saleheen, who leads regional forces battling for control of Bani Walid, said Gaddafi loyalists had positioned rockets and mortar launchers on civilian houses in the town, 180 km (110 miles) south of Tripoli.
Saleheen said his men would have to face about 1,200 pro-Gaddafi fighters, including 200 snipers perched on rooftops.
"We know all their positions. We have sent a message to all civilians that if they can, they must leave now," he told reporters on the northern outskirts of Bani Walid, his home town.
Hundreds of residents have poured out of the town in the past three days in cars crammed with children and possessions. A convoy of around 160 families left on Wednesday.
Residents say street battles and severe food and fuel shortages have made it impossible to stay.
Machinegun fire rang out around the town as anti-Gaddafi scouting squads, sent in to collect information ahead of a full-scale offensive, fought loyalist militiamen on the outskirts.
Along with Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast and Sabha, in the southern desert, Bani Walid is one of the last major pro-Gaddafi strongholds in Libya.
Forces backed by the National Transitional Council (NTC), the country's interim rulers, have met stronger resistance in Bani Walid than expected. They had initially estimated pro-Gaddafi forces in the low hundreds.
"If they use heavy weapons we will do the same," Saleheen said, declining to say when the fighting would start, saying only that civilians would have enough time to get out.
Saleheen knows how difficult it is to take control of Bani Walid's parched hills and valleys. He helped lead an uprising against Gaddafi there in 1993 and spent the next 18 years in prison when it was crushed.
"This area is thinly populated but it is difficult terrain because of the mountains," said Saleheen, who was released on February 19 near the start of Libya's unrest.
The central, densely populated part of Bani Walid is proving difficult to capture, NTC fighters say. It is on higher ground, allowing pro-Gaddafi forces to take aim from above.
Fighters were reported to have covered the road to central Bani Walid with oil, impeding the NTC's advance.
Saleheen said about a quarter of the town's 100,000 residents had left but many were trapped.
NTC forces have encircled the town and Saleheen said they were sure Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam was hiding there along with the ousted strongman's spokesman Moussa Ibrahim and domestic security official Tohami Khaled.
"We have eyes inside the city," he said.
Gaddafi's whereabouts are unknown, but his spokesman, in a telephone call to Reuters on Wednesday, said the 69-year-old was still in Libya.
Bani Walid's population, dominated by the Warfalla tribe, benefited from Gaddafi's oil-fueled largesse. Talks with tribal elders aimed at a peaceful settlement have repeatedly broken down.
"A number of people in Bani Walid are against the revolution because Gaddafi gave them money and cars and also benefits for unemployed young men," Saleheen said.
"The tribal leaders prefer not to fight and surrender ... but some were close to Gaddafi so they are resisting."
NTC commanders said they were on the lookout for pro-Gaddafi fighters trying to slip out of Bani Walid before the onslaught, and were halting cars at checkpoints to search for weapons.
They also checked the identities of people leaving against a "blacklist" of around 90 names.
Atiya Yousef, checkpoint official on the northern outskirts of Bani Walid, said the list contained "Gaddafi militiamen, thieves and murderers."
"We are checking every car," he said.
"The blacklist includes people involved in any pro-Gaddafi activity, including volunteers."
(Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Louise Ireland and Janet Lawrence)