- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 7, 2011

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Tripoli’s military commander said Wednesday that Col. Moammar Gadhafi is cornered and the days before he is captured or killed are numbered, but another senior defense official contended that Libya’s new rulers have no idea where the fugitive former leader is.

The comments are the latest in a series of conflicting statements on the most pressing question still haunting the North African nation: Where is Gadhafi?

The ousted leader, who ruled Libya for nearly 42 years, hasn’t been seen in public for months and has released only audio messages trying to rally his supporters and lash out at his opponents. He went to ground after opposition fighters swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21. The former rebels still are battling regime loyalists in three Gadhafi strongholds — Bani Walid, Sabha and Sirte.

Hunting down Col. Gadhafi would help seal the new rulers’ hold on the country and likely trigger the collapse of the remaining regime loyalists still fighting the former rebels.

Anis Sharif, a spokesman for Tripoli’s military council, told the Associated Press that Col. Gadhafi was still in Libya and had been tracked using advanced technology and human intelligence. Rebel forces have taken up positions on all sides of the fugitive leader’s presumed location, with none more than 40 miles away, he said, without elaborating.

“He can’t get out,” said Mr. Sharif, who added that the former rebels are preparing to either detain him or kill him. “We are just playing games with him,” he said.

He said an operations room manned by about 20 people had been set up in Tripoli to try to track Col. Gadhafi’s movements and coordinate the hunt for him.

A fighter close to Libya’s new leaders told the AP that the former rebels believe Col. Gadhafi is inside Bani Walid.

However, Deputy Defense Minister Mohammad Taynaz told the AP that the former rebels don’t know where Col. Gadhafi is, and he said the fugitive leader still could be hiding in tunnels under Tripoli.

He said the manhunt was not a focus for his men.

“Our priority is to liberate all of Libya,” he said. “Once the country is free, there will be nowhere for him to hide in Libya.”

Mr. Taynaz and Mr. Sharif both said the former rebels are receiving no assistance from their NATO allies in the hunt.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen echoed that statement, telling reporters in the Czech capital of Prague that the military alliance’s sole aim in Libya is to guarantee the safety of the country’s civilian population.

“I have no information whatsoever on his (Gadhafi‘s) whereabouts,” Mr. Fogh Rasmussen said. “He is not a target of NATO’s operation.”

NATO, which launched its air campaign against Col. Gadhafi’s regime in March under a U.N. mandate, has continued to hit loyalist targets since Tripoli’s fall. The alliance said airstrikes Tuesday around Sirte — Col. Gadhafi’s hometown — hit six tanks, six armored fighting vehicles and an ammunition storage facility, among other targets. They also targeted the Gadhafi loyalist strongholds of Hun, Sabha and Waddan.

Convoys of former regime loyalists, including his security chief, fled across the Sahara into Niger this week in a move that Libya’s former rebels hoped could help lead to the surrender of his last bastions of support.

In Niger’s capital, Niamey, Massoudou Hassoumi, a spokesman for the president, said Col. Gadhafi’s security chief had crossed the desert into Niger on Monday.

Mansour Dao, the former commander of Libya’s Revolutionary Guards who is a cousin of Col. Gadhafi’s as well as a member of his inner circle, is the only senior Libyan figure to have crossed into Niger, Mr. Hassoumi said.

He added that the group of nine people also included several pro-Gadhafi businessmen, as well as Agaly ag Alambo, a Tuareg rebel leader from Niger who led a failed uprising in the country’s north before crossing into Libya, where he was believed to be fighting for Col. Gadhafi.

Since Tripoli’s fall last month to Libyan rebels, there has been a movement of Gadhafi loyalists across the porous desert border that separates Libya from Niger. They include Tuareg fighters who are nationals of Niger and next-door neighbor Mali who fought on Col. Gadhafi’s behalf in the recent civil war.

Niger’s foreign minister told Algeria’s state news agency that several Libyan convoys had entered his country but that none carried Col. Gadhafi.

Hassan Droua, a representative of Sirte in the rebel’s National Transitional Council, said he had reports from witnesses that a convoy of cars belonging to Col. Gadhafi’s son Muatassim was headed for the Niger border loaded with cash and gold from the city’s Central Bank branch.

Algeria, which, like Niger, shares a border with Libya, confirmed last week that the ousted leader’s second wife, a daughter, two of his sons and several grandchildren had crossed into Algeria.

The West African nation of Burkina Faso, which borders Niger, offered Col. Gadhafi asylum last month. On Tuesday, Burkina Faso distanced itself from Col. Gadhafi, indicating he would be arrested if he came there.

The anti-Gadhafi fighters who toppled his regime by sweeping into Tripoli last month have been struggling to uproot the handful of regime holdouts, particularly in the cities of Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha. They say residents in those cities have been prevented from surrendering to the new post-Gadhafi rule because of former regime figures in their midst.

Abdullah Kenshil, the chief negotiator for the rebels in Bani Walid, told reporters outside a field clinic in Wishtat that Col. Gadhafi’s son and one-time heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, is hiding in the area.

“There’s evidence of Seif was sighted yesterday in the district of Bani Walid,” Mr. Kenshil said. “There are a lot of caves, but he has left from the center of the city. No talks with Seif al-Islam.”

Meanwhile, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the Transitional Council — the closest thing to a Libyan government now — warned that the loyalist town of Bani Walid had until Friday to surrender or else the former rebel forces would move in.

More truckloads of former rebels arrived Wednesday outside Bani Walid, a dusty city of 100,000 strung along the low ridges overlooking a dried-up desert river valley on the road connecting Sirte and Sabha.

Bani Walid is the homeland of Libya’s largest tribe, the Warfala. In 1993, some Warfala attempted a coup against Col. Gadhafi but were brutally crushed. The masterminds were executed, their homes demolished and their clans shunned while Col. Gadhafi brought other members of the tribe to dominance, giving them powerful government jobs and lucrative posts.

Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard in Tripoli, Libya; Hadeel al-Shalchi in Tarhouna, Libya; Dalatou Mamane in Niamey, Niger; Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi, Libya; and Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.

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