TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan rebels claimed to be close to capturing Muammar Gaddafi on Friday as their NATO backers bombed diehard loyalists in his tribal bastion, but there was no sign of an end to the war, or to international wrangling over Libya’s riches.
Leaders of the National Transitional Council, which has Western support, pressed foreign governments to release Libyan funds frozen abroad, warning of its urgent need to impose order and provide services to a population traumatized by six months of conflict and 42 years of eccentric, personal rule.
But Gaddafi’s long-time allies in Africa, beneficiaries of his oil-fueled largesse and sympathizers with a foreign policy he called anti-colonial, offered the fugitive strongman a grain of comfort and irked the rebels by refusing to follow Arab and Western powers in recognizing the NTC as the legal government.
Combined with the reluctance of major powers like China, Russia and Brazil, to see Europeans and Americans dominate a nation with Africa’s biggest oil reserves, the African Union’s resistance may slow the pace at which funds are released.
Mahmoud Jibril, head of the government in waiting, said time was short. Visiting NATO member Turkey, he said: “We have to establish an army, strong police force to be able meet the needs of the people and we need capital and we need the assets.
“All our friends in the international community speak of stability and security. We need that too.”
While many African states have recognized the NTC, the AU would not do so as long as fighting continued, South African President Jacob Zuma, a vocal advocate for Gaddafi, said after a meeting in Addis Ababa at which the AU called for all sides in the conflict to negotiate a peace and work for democracy.
“If there is fighting, there is fighting,” Zuma said. “The process is fluid. That’s part of what we inform countries — whether there is an authority to recognize.”
Rebel leaders are determined to show they are in charge, though estimates vary of when the TNC will move formally from its Benghazi base in the east to the war zone that is Tripoli.
“We have come to operate the country. We are now the legal authority,” declared Mohammed al-Alagi, a lawyer who has been the TNC’s justice minister for some months, as he met foreign journalists in the capital wearing a rebel flag as a bandana.
Other TNC leaders, who stress they want to work with other rebel groups which sprang up later in the west as well with those who have previously supported Gaddafi, say the war will only be over once the fallen leader is caught, “dead or alive.”
Alagi voiced confidence that Gaddafi and his entourage of sons and aides was surrounded and would soon be captured: “The area where he is now is under siege,” he told Reuters, while declining to say where in Tripoli he thought Gaddafi was. “The rebels are monitoring the area and they are dealing with it.”
Similar confidence has proved misplaced since the irregular armies overran Gaddafi’s compound on Tuesday, however, and analysts do not rule out that the 69-year-old, a veteran master of surprise, might have slipped away to rally supporters for an insurgency. He has not been seen in public for two months, but made a defiant audio broadcast on Thursday.
Colonel Hisham Buhagiar of the rebel force in the capital said Libyan commandos were targeting several areas: “We are sending special forces every day to hunt down Gaddafi. We have one unit that does intelligence and other units that hunt him.”
NATO forces, notably from France and Britain, are helping the rebels. Many analysts assume they are giving intelligence and may have their own special forces troops on the ground.
Despite sporadic gunfire as rebel fighters tried to take pockets of loyalist resistance, Tripoli was quieter than in recent days. Dead bodies, the stench of rotting garbage in the oppressive summer heat, wrecked cars and the other detritus of war were evidence of frantic battles and wildly erratic firing.
Some of Tripoli’s two million people, suffering from power cuts, dwindling supplies and a critical shortage of medical supplies and healthcare, ventured out to local mosques, some praying Gaddafi can be found by Monday, when Muslims mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan with the festival of Eid.
“Gaddafi is the biggest criminal and dictator and we hope we will find him before the end of Ramadan,” said Milad Abu Aisha, a 60-year-old pensioner who joined friends at his local mosque for traditional worship on the last Friday of Ramadan.
“It will be the happiest Eid in 42 years,” said Mohammed al-Misrati, a 52-year-old office worker who was among hundreds streaming toward the mosque under the protection of armed local men who have formed ad hoc security units across the capital.
“We have a taste of freedom after 42 years of repression.”
British aircraft fired cruise missiles at a headquarters bunker overnight in Gaddafi’s birthplace of Sirte.
A city beyond rebel control, on the Mediterranean coast 450 km (300 miles) east of Tripoli, some believe he might seek refuge there among his tribesmen. Loyalist forces also still hold positions deep in the Sahara desert.
“Sirte remains an operating base from which pro-Gaddafi troops project hostile forces against Misrata and Tripoli,” a NATO official said, adding that its forces had also acted to stop a column of 29 vehicles heading west toward Misrata.
In Benghazi, rebel military spokesman Ahmed Bani said the bombing in Sirte was aimed at ammunition stores and depots for Scud missiles. “Maybe the mercenaries will run away,” he said, referring to suggestions Gaddafi’s forces include hired fighters from Chad and other sub-Saharan African countries.
“After this bombing, maybe the people there will try to rise up.” he added, saying TNC commanders were also in contact with tribal chiefs in Sirte, hoping to avoid bloodshed.
Such negotiations will be a major challenge across the country for Libya’s new rulers as they try to meet expectations of young men now bearing arms and to heal ethnic, tribal and other divisions that have been exacerbated by civil war.
Reporting by Peter Graff, Ulf Laessing, Mohammed Abbas, and Samia Nakhoul in Tripoli; Robert Birsel, Emma Farge and Alexander Dziadosz in Benghazi, Barry Malone in Addis Ababa, Hamid Ould Ahmed and Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Algiers, Giles Elgood, Christian Lowe, Tarek Amara and Richard Valdmanis in Tunis,; Ibon Villelabeitia in Ankara, Jon Hemming in London, Arshad Mohammed in Washington and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Writing by Alastair Macdonald