Libyan fighters have surrounded ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and it is only a matter of time until he is captured or killed, a spokesman for Tripoli's new military council said Wednesday.
The council's deputy defence minister said, however, that Libya's former rebels had no idea where Gadhafi was, and they were focusing on taking control of territory instead of tracking down the former leader.
Figures in Libya's new government have given a series of conflicting statements about Gadhafi's presumed whereabouts since the fall of the capital last month and many reports about his location have proven untrue.
Anis Sharif told The Associated Press that Gadhafi was still in Libya and had been tracked using advanced technology and human intelligence. Rebel forces have taken up positions on all sides of Gadhafi's presumed location, with none more than 60 kilometres away, he said, without providing details.
"He can't get out," said Sharif, who added the former rebels are preparing to either detain him or kill him. "We are just playing games with him," Sharif said.
'He can't get out.' —Anis Sharif
NATO said that it had made a number of airstrikes around Sirte — Gadhafi's hometown — on Tuesday, hitting six tanks, six armoured fighting vehicles and an ammunition storage facility, among other targets. They also targeted the Gadhafi loyalist strongholds of Hun, Sabha and Waddan.
Deputy Defence Minister Mohammad Tanaz told the AP that the former rebels don't know where Gadhafi is, and the fugitive could still be hiding in tunnels under Tripoli.
He said the manhunt was not a focus for his men.
"Our priority is to liberate all of Libya," he said.
Locating Gadhafi would help seal the new rulers' hold on the country. Convoys of Gadhafi loyalists, including his security chief, fled across the Sahara into Niger this week in a move that Libya's former rebels hoped could help lead to the surrender of his last strongholds.
In Niger's capital, Niamey, Massoudou Hassoumi, a spokesman for the president, said Gadhafi's security chief had crossed the desert into Niger on Monday.
Mansour Dao, the former commander of Libya's Revolutionary Guards who is a cousin of Gadhafi as well as a member of his inner circle, is the only senior Libyan figure to have crossed into Niger, said Hassoumi.
Hassoumi said the group of nine people also included several pro-Gadhafi businessmen, as well as Agaly ag Alambo, a Tuareg rebel leader from Niger who led a failed uprising in the country's north before crossing into Libya, where he was believed to be fighting for Gadhafi.
Missing Gadhafi-era weapons raise fears
Crates of mortar shells sit unguarded and empty boxes for missiles to blow up tanks and bring down airplanes are strewn about arms depots around the Libyan capital.
Former rebels say they took some ammunition for the fight against Moammar Gadhafi, but U.S. officials and others have expressed fears Libya's weapons could fall into the wrong hands.
The six-month civil war that ended Gadhafi's 42-year rule and sent him into hiding also threw open the gates to his regime's extensive armouries. The country's new leaders, who are struggling to establish a government, have failed to secure many of the caches, making them free game for looters, former rebel fighters or anyone with a truck to carry them away.
Visits by The Associated Press to weapons caches around Tripoli show that many remain poorly guarded and have already been heavily looted. About a dozen rebels wandered around one site the AP visited on Wednesday, where a large hangar was strewn with the boxes of missing weapons. Rebels at another site were leaving with a load of tank shells they said they were taking to a safe place for storage. They acknowledged, however, that they'd found the site unguarded.
Since Tripoli's fall last month to Libyan rebels, there has been a movement of Gadhafi loyalists across the porous desert border that separates Libya from Niger. They include Tuareg fighters who are nationals of Niger and next-door neighbour Mali who fought on Gadhafi's behalf in the recent civil war.
Niger's foreign minister told Algeria's state news agency that several Libyan convoys had entered his country, but that none carried Gadhafi.
Algeria, which like Niger shares a border with Libya — confirmed last week that the ousted leader's wife, his daughter, two of his sons, and several grandchildren had crossed into Algeria.
The West African nation of Burkina Faso, which borders Niger, offered Gadhafi asylum last month. On Tuesday, Burkina Faso distanced itself from Gadhafi, indicating he would be arrested if he went there.
The anti-Gadhafi fighters who toppled his regime by sweeping into Tripoli last month have been struggling to uproot his bastions of support, particularly in the cities of Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha. They say residents in those cities have been prevented from surrendering to the new post-Gadhafi rule because of former regime figures in their midst.
Hassan Droua, a representative of Sirte in the rebel's National Transitional Council, said he had reports from witnesses that a convoy of cars belonging to Gadhafi's son, Muatassim, was headed for the Niger border loaded with cash and gold from the city's Central Bank branch.
Meanwhile, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the Transitional Council — the closest thing to a Libyan government now —warned that the loyalist town of Bani Walid had until Friday to surrender or else the former rebel forces would move in.
Learn more about the role of tribalism in Libya's history
More truckloads of former rebels arrived Wednesday outside Bani Walid, a dusty city of 100,000 strung the low ridges overlooking a dried up desert river valle on the road connecting Sirte and Sabha. Bani Walid is the homeland of Libya's largest tribe, the Warfala. In 1993, some Warfala attempted a coup against Gadhafi but were brutally crushed.