An official on Libya’s governing council says he believes Muammar Gaddafi is hiding in the south-western desert near the borders with Niger and Algeria, but denied allegations that the Tuareg minority ethnic group is protecting the fugitive leader.
Moussa al-Kouni, who is a Tuareg representative on the revolution’s leadership body, claimed on Monday that Gaddafi had sent his son Khamis to the area to set up a radio station and make preparations for a possible escape route two months before Tripoli fell to revolutionary forces in late August.
Al-Kouni provided no evidence, saying he based his assertion on the fact that the Gaddafi regime had used the area before because it has rough terrain and porous borders that would make detection difficult. He also pointed out that Gaddafi had cultivated close ties with the Niger government and could even be going back and forth across the border.
“As far as I am aware, Gaddafi is in that region … on the border with Niger,” he told reporters in Tripoli, adding that Gaddafi could get safe passage through Niger to Mali, where he allegedly has a house in Timbuktu. Niger has put Gaddafi’s son al-Saadi under house arrest.
There has been much speculation about Gaddafi’s whereabouts since the erratic leader and two of his sons went underground as revolutionary forces swept into the capital.
Libya’s new rulers have vowed Gaddafi will face justice for crimes committed during more than four decades of brutal rule. But more than seven weeks after Tripoli’s fall, authorities appear no closer to capturing him and the fugitive former leader continues to try to rally supporters with audio messages from hiding, most recently on Thursday.
The head of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, told reporters Sunday the governing authority had no confirmed information about Gaddafi’s location and he didn’t know whether the fugitive leader was inside or outside Libya.
Some military officials have alleged Tuaregs are helping Gaddafi survive and remain hidden in the vast southern desert. The nomadic community, which spans the desert border of Niger, Mali, Libya, Algeria and Chad, has long been among Gaddafi’s strongest supporters and many fought for him during the civil war.
Al-Kouni acknowledged that some of Gaddafi’s Tuareg recruits may still be helping him but insisted the community as a whole was not. He expressed concern that the allegations were causing harmful divisions between Tuaregs and other Libyans.
Revolutionary forces still battling Gaddafi loyalists have made gains in recent days on two major fronts, his coastal hometown of Sirte and the inland enclave of Bani Walid, but still face fierce resistance.
The transitional leadership, eager to move forward with efforts to hold elections and establish a democracy, has said it will declare Libya liberated after Sirte falls.
Anti-Gaddafi fighters raised their tricolour flag on Monday over Sirte’s Ouagadougou Convention Centre, which had been used by loyalists as a base, but fighting surged elsewhere in the fugitive leader’s hometown. Tank, rocket and machine-gun fire echoed through the surrounding streets.
Col Younis al-Abdally, a commander in Sirte, said his troops have surrounded pro-Gaddafi fighters in a small area along the upscale Dollar Street. He conceded a fierce fight still lies ahead, adding that information indicates one of Gaddafi’s sons and a number of top officials of the former regime are holed up in villas there.
Artillery commander Mahmoud Mustafa said Gaddafi’s son Moatassim was believed to be hiding in Dollar Street or one of two other areas where fighting still raged, so revolutionary forces were trying to capture pro-Gaddafi fighters alive.
“We believe there are some important figures, including Moatassim, and that is the reason we have faced such strong resistance for weeks,” he said.
A team from the International Committee of the Red Cross entered Sirte’s Ibn Sina Hospital on Monday to evacuate wounded people left behind after three weeks of fighting.
More than 100 patients, including several wounded children and their families, were trapped in the hospital, Dr Abdallah Etbiga said.
In Bani Walid, the other remaining bastion of Gaddafi loyalists, revolutionary fighters retreated from the town center after facing heavy sniper fire and booby-traps but still held the airport and two villages to the south, said Abdullah Kenshil, who led failed talks for the town’s peaceful surrender.
Gaddafi forces also attacked revolutionaries at the town’s northern gate on Monday but were repelled, he said, adding four fighters were killed and six wounded in that battle.