Fighters take section of Gadhafi stronghold
Niger confirms Gadhafi son al-Saadi in country
Revolutionary forces battled their way back into a key stronghold of Moammar Gadhafi loyalists on Sunday, seizing control of the northern half of Bani Walid.
The partial victory comes as a spokesman for Niger's government announced that Libyan leader Gadhafi's son al-Saadi has entered the country via the northern desert separating the landlocked African nation from Libya.
Amadou Morou, who is also the minister of justice, told reporters at a news conference Sunday: "I wish to announce to you that one of Gadhafi's sons, al-Saadi Gadhafi, was intercepted in the north of Niger."
Morou said that al-Saadi "has no status at all" in Niger, indicating that he has not been granted refugee status, which guarantees certain rights.
"At this moment the convoy is en route to Agadez [northern Niger]. The convoy could arrive in Niamey [the capital] between now and tomorrow," he added.
Al-Saadi is the third of Gadhafi's seven sons and once led an elite unit in the Libyan army.
Since last week, several convoys carrying senior officials of the former Libyan regime as well as civilians and soldiers have made their way across the porous border into Niger. Among them were several of Gadhafi's top military officers, including his chief of security
On Sunday, anti-regime fighters launched a two-pronged assault on Bani Walid that soon dissolved into street fighting. But Gadhafi supporters have put up fierce resistance, and forced former rebels to retreat Saturday amid a barrage of rocket and mortar fire.
Bani Walid is one of three significant remaining bastions of support for Gadhafi, along with Sirte on the Mediterranean coast and Sabha in the southern desert. The surprisingly stiff resistance has continued despite the effective end of Gadhafi's nearly 42-year rule on Aug. 21, when Libyan fighters swept into the capital, Tripoli.
In the capital, anti-Gadhafi fighters captured Bouzaid Dourda, the former head of the regime's external security service, Sunday in the Libyan capital, said Anes Sharif, a spokesman for Tripoli's military council. A longtime Gadhafi insider, Dourda also served as prime minister in the 1990s.
Libya's new leaders have arrested several former high ranking regime officials, although many have fled the country or remain at large, including Gadhafi and his one-time heir apparent, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi.
Libyan fighters pushed back into the town Sunday, a day after retreating under heavy fire, said fighter Sobhi Warfali. He said revolutionary forces now control the northern half of the town and were battling regime loyalists in the centre.
Resident Khalifa al-Talisi said "the rebels don't control the centre yet, but everything from the city centre to this [northern] side is liberated."
Around a mile from the town centre, a cluster of abandoned houses in the desert showed signs of fierce fighting. The charred hulk of a car stood in front of a still-burning home that sent plumes of black smoke into the air. Single gunshots, which appeared to be from snipers, occasionally echoed across the dusty town, and the thud of mortar fire shook the ground.
"The Gadhafi loyalists are throwing mortars and snipers are shooting at us from the centre of the city," said Abdul-Bari al-Mitag, a 23-year-old fighter returning from the front line.
'The door for peace is still open'
Abdullah Kenshil, a negotiator for the former rebels, said Gadhafi forces killed two tribal leaders who had taken part in talks to end the standoff peacefully. That could not be independently verified.
Despite the bloodshed, Kenshil said, "The door for peace is still open."
NATO, which has played a key role in hitting Gadhafi's forces over the six-month civil war, said Sunday that its warplanes hit a series of targets near Bani Walid a day earlier — a tank, two armed vehicles and one multiple rocket launcher.
Airstrikes also pounded targets around Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, and the towns of Waddan and Sabha in the southern desert.
A military commander for former rebels near Bani Walid, Abdel-Razak al-Nadouri, said a sizable force pushed into the town on Saturday but met heavy resistance and NATO asked them to pull back to allow the airstrikes.
"A large number of people entered Bani Walid, but we had to retreat because of heavy fire," he said. "Yesterday, NATO asked us to return seven kilometres from Bani Walid because they were striking military bases and Grad rocket launchers."
The former rebels launched the assault on Bani Walid after negotiations for the town's surrender broke down Friday.
Libya's new leaders have also been trying to broker a deal for the surrender of Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown. But a deadline for the town's surrender expired Saturday, and a revolutionary commander taking part in the negotiations, Mustafa al-Rubaie, said "now all options are open."
Libyan fighters have advanced to within 30 kilometres west of Sirte, and in the east as far as the town of Harawa, 50 kilometres from the city, according to al-Rubaie.
He said fighters from Harawa will lead the force into Sirte "because they are from the city and they are part of the Sirte people."
"I think it will not be a 100 per cent peaceful takeover of Sirte. There will be pockets of loyalists," he said. "In general, the people of Sirte are all armed with light weapons, even youngsters."
Al-Rubaie said that over the past months, Gadhafi's forces which fled from all the eastern cities and from Misrata are all now concentrating in Sirte.