In an audio recording broadcast on television Thursday, deposed Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi denied rumours that he fled to neighbouring Niger and called on Libyans to keep fighting the "germs" and "rats" who co-operated with NATO.

In a message aired on Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, a voice said to belong to Gadhafi denounced reports that he had fled the North African nation and blasted former rebels who ousted him from power as "a bunch of mercenaries, thugs and traitors."

"We are ready to start the fight in Tripoli and everywhere else, and rise up against them," Gadhafi said in the five-minute audio recording translated by The Associated Press. "All of these germs, rats and scumbags, they are not Libyans, ask anyone. They have co-operated with NATO."

The authenticity of the recording could not be independently verified but the voice and style strongly resembled Gadhafi, who has used the TV channel in the past.

Later Thursday, Gadhafi loyalists fired rockets from inside Bani Walid, targeting opposition fighters who have surrounded the area. The desert town is one of the few remaining Gadhafi strongholds.

At least 10 loud explosions shook the ground along the desert frontline and smoke billowed from where the projectiles landed in Wadi Dinar, about 19 kilometres outside the town, The Associated Press reported. The former rebels said the projectiles fired were Grad rockets.

Ousted ruler in hiding

Gadhafi's exact whereabouts are still not known. He hasn't been seen in public for months and has relied on audio broadcasts to reach his supporters and criticize his opposition.

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Anti-Gadhafi forces wave a flag at a checkpoint near the town of Al Washka, some 140 kilometres west of Sirte, one of Moammar Gadhafi's last remaining strongholds. ((Goran Tomasevic/Reuters))

Speculation emerged earlier in the week that he had fled to neighbouring Niger after a convoy of military vehicles was spotted entering the country.

The U.S. later said it had no evidence indicating that Gadhafi was in the convoy, and Niger's foreign minister told the BBC Wednesday that Gadhafi was not in the country.

"It is not true that he has tried to come into Niger or he came into Niger," Mohamed Bazoum told the broadcaster.

According to Al-Jazeera, Gadhafi said in the recording that there was nothing unusual about a convoy of vehicles travelling into the neighbouring desert nation, and called the rumours about his whereabouts "psychological warfare and lies."

The confusion around his location grew Wednesday, when oppposition forces gave conflicting statements about his whereabouts.

A spokesman for the new military council said rebel fighters had located and surrounded the deposed ruler, but a deputy defence minister later said that opposition forces weren't sure where he was.

Pockets of resistance

The former rebels have made substantial gains in recent weeks, sweeping west from their base in Benghazi after six months of clashes and drawn-out conflict with regime forces. The fighters moved into Tripoli in late August, battling with regime loyalists before taking the capital city.

But the former rebels are still facing resistance from at least three Gadhafi strongholds: Bani Walid, Sabha and Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown.

Thousands of fighters have converged on areas outside Bani Walid and have threatened to attack if residents don't surrender by Saturday. Officials have said the town emerged as a focus because of the number of prominent regime loyalists believed to be inside.

Gadhafi ruled Libya for more than four decades before being forced into hiding by a rebel advance supported by a NATO-led mission to protect civilians.

Opposition forces are in the process of establishing an interim government and are working with international organizations to try and unfreeze Libyan assets.

With files from The Associated PRess