Libya’s National Transitional Council says that Muammar Gaddafi, the country’s toppled leader, is in the southern desert region of the country, and that it is only a matter of time before he is captured.
Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, the vice-chairman of the NTC, told Al Jazeera on Thursday that satellites have been tracking the former Libyan leader south of Sabha.
“We have confirmed reports that Gaddafi is in the southern Libyan desert. He’s not staying in one place. He is moving around with a small convoy which consists of his closest aides and bodyguards,” he said.
Ghoga added that the fighters’ priority is currently to take full control of Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown and one of the last places still contested between the NTC and Gaddafi loyalists.
“Once the liberation of Sirte has been achieved – our fighters will track down Gaddafi himself.”
Battle for Sirte rages
NTC commanders have moved up tanks into the ousted leader’s hometown to fire at buildings from close range to try to dislodge the remaining snipers loyal to Gaddafi who are now surrounded on all sides in one small part of the city.
Die-hard loyalists to the deposed leader have not given up the fight, answering NTC attacks in the city with small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. An NTC commander said Gaddafi’s besieged forces were no longer using heavier weapons.
Al Jazeera’s Tony Birtley, reporting from the frontline in Sirte said that he felt it was just a matter of time before Sirte falls into the hands of the revolutionary forces.
He said that while positions had not moved in the past 24 hours, anti-Gaddafi forces had been pinned down by heavy return of fire from the pro-Gaddafi forces.
“As some people have said, they are not fighting for Gaddafi any more, they are fighting for their own lives.”
Birtley said however that there is nowhere left for the pro-Gaddafi forces to run. He said that anti-Gaddafi forces were also getting frustrated.
“This is the day, Friday, that they expected it all to be over. It’s not…The fall of Sirte will mean to these people, people all over Libya that this war is over.”
Earlier, on Thursday, Khaled Alteir, a field commander in Sirte, had said, “We have control of the whole of the city except neighbourhood ‘Number Two’ where the Gaddafi forces are surrounded,” .
“This operation is on its dying breath,” said another commander, Colonel Mohammad Aghfeer.
The siege of Sirte, which began after the capital Tripoli fell to the NTC two months ago, has held up Libya’s transition to normality as the country’s new leaders say they will only start building a democratic system after the city is captured.
Green flags, the banner of Gaddafi’s 42-year rule, still fly above many buildings in Sirte, but, another NTC commander said, the defending forces appear to have lost their cohesion.
“We’ve noticed now they are fighting every man for himself,” said Baloun Al Sharie, a field commander. “We tried to tell them it’s enough and to give themselves up, but they would not.”
NTC officers say Gaddafi loyalists fear reprisals if they give themselves up.
Some captured fighters have been roughed up by NTC forces and Amnesty International issued a report on Wednesday saying Libya’s new rulers were in danger of repeating human rights abuses commonplace during Gaddafi’s rule. The NTC condemned practices highlighted in report.
“Such acts could have possibly been perceived as acceptable at the beginning [of this revolution], given the brutal crimes committed by Gaddafis mercenaries – however today – they are unjustifiable,” Ghoga said.
Close to the centre of the fighting in Sirte, government forces found 25 corpses wrapped in plastic sheets. They accused groups loyal to Gaddafi of carrying out execution-style killings. Five corpses shown to a Reuters news agency team wore civilian clothes, had their hands tied behind their backs and gunshot wounds to the head.
As the tanks pounded the apartment blocks where Gaddafi’s men are holed up, pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns moved in behind, then infantry armed with AK-47s began their assault.
One field hospital received two NTC dead and 23 wounded on Thursday. One of the dead men had been hit while taking food up to the fighters on the frontline, doctors said.
In the skies, NATO aircraft have been carrying out reconnaissance missions and Britain said its jets had bombed and destroyed two pick-up trucks belonging to Gaddafi’s forces in Sirte on Wednesday.
But as the battle for Libya draws towards what the NTC and NATO hope will be a close, both the new government and the Western alliance which helped topple Gaddafi are looking towards a return to normality.
The provisional Libyan government and NATO signed an agreement on Thursday to immediately open air corridors for international civilian flights from Benghazi, and domestic flights between the second city and Tripoli and Misrata.
This is one of the first steps toward NATO lifting its no-fly zone over Libya imposed after Gaddafi began a military assault on civilians protesting his one-man rule.
Philipp Roesler, Germany’s economy minister, said 150 wounded Libyans would be treated in Germany. Berlin plans to support Libya with medical supplies and aid and help in training and educating young Libyans, he said.
“We are here because we see the most important raw material of Libya, it is not oil and gas…[it is] the younger people who started the revolution here. They need future and perspective after their victory,” Roesler told a news conference in Tripoli.
Suspicious oil contracts
In another development, Ali Tarhuni, the NTC’s oil minister, vowed that Libya would investigate “every penny” of suspicious oil contracts signed under Gaddafi’s regime, which was responsible for what he called “unbelievable corruption”.
“There will be specialised committees that will look into all these contracts and agreements starting with the oil sector,” Tarhuni said, without giving details on contracts or companies.
Libya’s oil production, which collapsed after the uprising in February, is expected to rise to nearly one million barrels per day by April from the current 400,000, Nuri Berruien, the head of the state-run National Oil Company, said.