Tribal elders hold talks over Gadhafi stronghold

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TARHOUNA, Libya (AP) — Tribal elders from one of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s last strongholds were trying to persuade regime loyalists holed up there to lay down their arms, the elders said during talks Tuesday with rebel negotiators, hours after a large convoy of heavily armed Gadhafi soldiers crossed the desert into neighboring Niger.

The elders left the besieged town of Bani Walid to meet with rebels in a tiny mosque about 40 miles away.

“The revolutionaries have not come to humiliate anyone. We are all here to listen,” Abdullah Kenshil, the chief rebel negotiator, said at the start of the meeting. Then, in a message clearly intended for the hardcore Gadhafi loyalists in Bani Walid, some of whom may be fearing rebel retribution, he added: “I say we are not like the old regime. We don’t take revenge, and we don’t bear grudges.”

Gadhafi loyalists have been holed up in several towns, including Bani Walid, some 90 miles southeast of Tripoli. Thousands of rebel fighters have surrounded the town.

The four tribal elders at the meeting said rumors were circulating in Bani Walid that the rebels were going to rape the women of the town and kill the people.

“Bani Walid is split into two groups,” Moftah al-Rubassi said. “The first, and the majority, want peace. The second, these are people who have been implicated (as part of Col. Gadhafi’s regime), either by blood or money, and they are cowards.”

He said that quickly restoring the city’s basic services — it has had no water or electricity for many days — would assure residents of the rebels’ intentions. The rebels said that would happen as soon as possible.

Col. Gadhafi’s whereabouts are unknown, but speculation has centered on his hometown of Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha in the far south.

Gadhafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim was defiant in a Tuesday phone call to the Syrian TV station al-Rai, saying the ousted dictator was “in excellent health, planning and organizing for the defense of Libya.” Mr. Ibrahim, who the rebels believe was in Bani Walid, said both Col. Gadhafi and his sons remain in Libya.

“We are fighting and resisting for the sake of Libya and all Arabs,” he said. “We are still strong and capable of turning the tables on NATO,” he said, though the regime effectively collapsed more than a week ago.

Another rebel official, Khaled al-Zintani, said rebels had arrested Khalid Kaim, Col. Gadhafi’s deputy foreign minister, in Tripoli on Monday.

A video, posted on rebels’ Facebook pages, showed Mr. Kaim in a white robe sitting on a bed, with young men shouting at him.

“You are a dog!” yelled the rebels, some of them in military uniform. “But we will treat you in a good way,” one added.

He responded by saying, “I swear to God, I had good intentions.”

Late Monday, meanwhile, a large convoy of Gadhafi loyalists rolled into the central Niger town of Agadez, said Abdoulaye Harouna, the owner of the local newspaper. The convoy consisted of more than a dozen pickup trucks bristling with well-armed Libyan troops, said Mr. Harouna, who saw the arrival.

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