ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
TRIPOLI, Libya — Rebel fighters pushed closer to Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown Friday, despite the extension of a deadline for the town’s surrender and talks with tribal leaders aimed at avoiding bloodshed.
With the capital of Tripoli in their hands, the rebels are in no rush to assault the loyalist-held town of Sirte, rebel officials said, hoping the town would surrender without an attack. But the rebels are moving their forces into position in case.
“Military action will be the last option, because after the fall of the capital, we are not in a hurry,” Khaled Zintani, a rebel spokesman in Zintan, said.
Sirte’s tribal elders had asked that a delegation from Zintan be sent to Sirte to aid talks, he said, because of a history of bad blood with rebels from nearby towns.
There have been conflicting reports about Gadhafi’s whereabouts.
Gen. Omar al-Hariri, a rebel military commander, suggested that Gadhafi might be in a Tripoli suburb or in the town of Bani Walid, 90 miles southeast of Tripoli. But he admitted the former Libyan leader probably has hideouts elsewhere.
“We are after him and we will find him,” he told the Associated Press.
The rebels have said they are concentrating their forces on three strongholds still held by Gadhafi loyalists: Sirte, Bani Walid, and the southern city of Sabha.
But even without Gadhafi in custody, rebel leaders are trying to stabilize Libya.
A Libyan official said at least five foreign oil and gas firms have returned recently to resume production. Production in Libya’s lucrative oil and gas sectors stopped during the insurgency against Gadhafi.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Gadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam, said al-Islam has been traveling close to Tripoli, meeting tribal leaders and preparing to retake the city.
In a phone call to Reuters from what he said was a “southern suburb of Tripoli,” Moussa Ibrahim derided the ability of the rebels’ National Transitional Council to run the country after its fighters forced Gadhafi into hiding and said their Western backers should negotiate with the ousted leader.
Ibrahim declined to be specific about where he was calling from — though it was a Libyan number which was on the caller-ID screen.
“I move around a lot and I don’t have an Internet connection at the moment,” he said, after saying he was in “a southern suburb of Tripoli.”
“Only yesterday,” he said, “I was with Mr. Seif al-Islam. I joined him on a tour circling Tripoli from the south.”
Seif al-Islam, long viewed as Gadhafi’s heir apparent, had met tribal leaders and other supporters, he said.
“We are still very strong,” Ibrahim said.