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Gaddafi’s men flee to Niger, hunt for leader goes on

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Some senior Muammar Gaddafi loyalists are among a new group that has fled to Niger, security sources there said on Friday, a day before a deadline expires for the surrender of some of the deposed leader’s remaining strongholds in Libya.

Gaddafi himself declared in an audio broadcast on Thursday that he was still in Libya, cursing as rats and stray dogs his NATO-backed opponents who are now trying to run the large, oil-producing North African country.

Interpol said it had issued arrest warrants for Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, who are all wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for suspected crimes against humanity.

Gaddafi is a fugitive whose country of nationality and the ICC want arrested and held accountable for the serious criminal charges that have been brought against him,” said Ronald Noble, secretary general of the Lyons-based police organization.

Interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, in Tripoli for the first time since Gaddafi was driven from the capital on August 23, reminded Libyans that “the tyrant” was not yet finished.

The security sources in Niger said a party of 14 Libyans, including General Ali Kana, a Tuareg who commanded Gaddafi‘s southern troops, a second general and two other top officials had arrived in Agadez in northern Niger in a convoy of four-wheel drive vehicles on Thursday afternoon.

A Reuters reporter in Agadez said the four senior officials were staying at a Gaddafi-owned hotel in the town.

Niger’s government, under pressure from Western powers and Libya‘s new rulers to hand over former Gaddafi officials suspected of human rights abuses, has not yet commented.

It said it accepted a convoy carrying Mansour Dhao, head of Gaddafi‘s security brigades, on Monday on humanitarian grounds.

SATURDAY ULTIMATUM

Libya‘s National Transitional Council (NTC) has given Gaddafi-held bastions such as the desert town of Bani Walid, 150 km (95 miles) southeast of Tripoli, and the coastal city of Sirte until Saturday to surrender or face a military assault.

Some NTC officials have said Gaddafi must be captured or killed before Libya can be declared liberated and a timetable for elections and a new constitution can start running.

“This is a stage where we have to unify and be together. Once the battle is finished … the political game can start,” Jibril, head of the NTC‘s interim cabinet, said on Thursday.

“Perhaps some thought the tyrant had already left and that the regime had toppled. And this has brought to the surface some differences,” he said, in a city where disparate militias have been staking out territory for the past two weeks.

Gaddafi said in what Syrian-based Arrai TV said was a live broadcast from Libya: “We will not leave our ancestral land … The youths are now ready to escalate the resistance against the rats in Tripoli and to finish off the mercenaries.”

Backing up his words, volleys of Grad missiles flew out of Bani Walid, where NTC forces are besieging what they believe to be a hard core of about 150 pro-Gaddafi fighters.

“We can do it within two hours maximum,” Ahmed Bani, an NTC military spokesman, said of capturing Bani Walid. He said he believed Gaddafi‘s son and deputy Saif al-Islam was there, but suggested that his father had already moved further south.

“He’s a fox. Maybe he wants us to believe that he’s out. But he’s inside (Libya) … close to the border so that in an emergency he can escape.”

BESIEGERS PRAY

Anti-Gaddafi fighters inched forward to about 5 km (3 miles)outside Bani Walid late on Thursday, with NATO planes monitoring the advance from the sky, Reuters witnesses said.

As dusk fell, dozens of NTC men gathered to pray quietly on the tarmac at a big checkpoint outside the town, undisturbed by the sound of distant shelling from Gaddafi‘s side.

“We are approaching from the Misrata side as well. Bani Walid will be liberated no matter what,” NTC field commander Abdurahman al-Kazmi said.

Despite their swift victory in Tripoli after six months of civil war, Libya‘s new leadership is struggling to impose its authority across the capital and the rest of the sprawling desert state of six million people that is rich in oil and gas.

The stalemates around Sirte, Bani Walid and south into the desert town of Sabha — all pro-Gaddafi redoubts — mean the original rebel stronghold of Benghazi is still largely cut off from Tripoli, an 800 km (500 mile) drive away to the west.

NTC leaders have said they hope to be pumping oil again next week. The new central bank chief assured Libyans and their foreign business partners on Thursday that the bank had not been looted by fleeing members of the old government.

Jibril assured people in Tripoli that the NTC would have completed its move there from Benghazi by the end of next week — though previous forecasts have been followed by delays.

Some of that hesitation seems to stem from long-standing regional rivalries and from a sense that Tripoli may not be a safe place for every Libyan official as brigades of fighters united only by hatred of Gaddafi jostle for influence there.

(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe in Tripoli, Sherine El Madany in Ras Lanuf, Maria Golovnina in Wishtat, Barry Malone and Sylvia Westall in Tunis, Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Agadez, Nathalie Prevost in Niamey and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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