Rocket exchange at one of Gadhafi’s last bastions, all-out attack could come Saturday

Moammar Gadhafi’s supporters lashed out Friday with rockets at Libyan fighters who are gearing up to storm one of the last towns holding out against the country’s new rulers.

Former rebel fighters celebrate at the front line in Bani Walid

Former rebel fighters celebrate at the front line in Bani Walid

WISHTATA, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi’s supporters lashed out Friday with rockets at Libyan fighters who are gearing up to storm one of the last towns holding out against the country’s new rulers.

With anti-Gadhafi forces threatening to move in as early as Saturday on Bani Walid, Interpol said it had issued its top most-wanted alert for the arrest of Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country’s ex-chief of military intelligence. The three are sought by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity, and there have been reports Seif al-Islam is in Bani Walid.

The elder Gadhafi hasn’t been seen in public for months and went underground after anti-regime fighters swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21. As the National Transitional Council tries to establish its authority in Libya, speculation about Gadhafi’s whereabouts has centred on his Mediterranean hometown of Sirte, southern Sabha, and Bani Walid, 90 miles (140 kilometres) southeast of Tripoli. Gadhafi loyalists in all three towns have been given until Saturday to surrender, or face an all-out battle.

Friday, Gadhafi holdouts in Bani Walid fired mortars and rockets toward the fighters’ position in a desert dotted with green shrubs and white rocks, killing at least one and wounding several. Loud explosions were heard about 10 kilometres (six miles)from the front line, followed by plumes of black smoke in the already hazy air. NATO planes circled above.

NATO says it is acting under a U.N. mandate to guarantee the safety of Libya’s civilian population. Its bombing campaign has been crucial to the advance of Gadhafi’s military opponents.

Daw Salaheen, the chief commander for the anti-Gadhafi forces’ operation at Bani Walid, said his fighters responded with their own rocket fire, and advanced on the town.

Despite the advance, “the deadline is still tomorrow to enter Bani Walid,” Salaheen said.

Officials in the National Transitional Council — which is the closest thing to a government Libya has now but still has only shaky authority — set a Saturday deadline for the city of 100,000 to surrender. They have hoped to negotiate a peaceful entry into the city, but talks with local leaders have gone nowhere.

The dozens of fighters deployed at checkpoints outside the city were clearly impatient to move in.

Osama al-Fassi helped unload ammunition from the back of a large truck with a sense of urgency. The bearded man in sand-colored fatigues said that with Gadhafi loyalists rocketing the front line, he didn’t attach much importance to the political leaders’ plans on when to move.

“We in the field decide when we enter the city with force,” he said as he loaded wooden boxes of Russian manufactured ammunition into a pick up truck that was headed to the front. The truck was quickly filled with RPGs still in plastic wrapping, small mortar rockets, and metal boxes of ammunition.

Another fighter, Abdullah bin Tashi, ran from comrade to comrade, urging them to move toward the front line.

“They’ve got mortars and (rockets) and they’re rocketing us,” he told one man. “Come on, you need to move forward, send your men to the front.”

Asked if he needed to await order from chief commander Saleheen, he shouted: “Who is Daw? I don’t recognize Daw.”

A fighter who appeared dressed for a weekend outing in jeans, a blue button-down shirt and sunglasses walked from the front line, looking despondent.

“I lost a friend inside,” he told reporters, choking on tears.

Ahmed Momen, a 23-year-old medic for the anti-Gadhafi forces at the front line, said casualties on his side in Friday’s mortar and rocket exchanges included three injured and one dead

The anti-Gadhafi fighters said they had captured 10 Gadhafi fighters they suspected were spying on them. Dressed in fatigues, their hands tied behind their backs, the 10 were being held in two pickup trucks at the Wishtata checkpoint, about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from Bani Walid. An Associated Press photographer who saw the trucks said two of the 10 appeared to be dead.

The seizure of the capital by the then-rebel forces effectively ended nearly 42 years of Gadhafi’s autocratic, violent and unpredictable rule. The new leaders now control most of the country, but as long as Gadhafi is on the loose, able to urge his followers on with messages from underground, they cannot claim total victory.

Mahmoud Shammam, a spokesman for Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the former rebels’ acting Cabinet, said Gadhafi’s inner circle has been broken up. Most of its members are under arrest or in the process of handing themselves over, Shammam said.

Moammar Gadhafi, Seif al-Islam and former military intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senoussi are the only people at large who matter, Shammam said in a telephone interview from Qatar.

In a statement Friday, Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble called the red notices it issued to its 188 member countries Friday “a powerful tool” in helping lead to the capture of the Gadhafis and al-Senoussi. A red notice is the equivalent to being on the Lyon, France-based international police body’s most-wanted list.