Rumors that Libya dictator Moammar Gadhafi is preparing to flee the country are being fueled by suspicious activity at two Tripoli airports, rebel sources told The Washington Times.
There has been a flurry of VIP traffic at the airports over the past couple of days, most notably convoys of cars, rebels said. They speculated that the cars’ occupants could be members of Col. Gadhafi’s inner circle.
The presence of at least two foreign aircraft — one believed to be from South Africa, the other of European origin — has fanned rumors that Col. Gadhafi is planning a hasty exit. None of the planes has left Tripoli.
“There have been suspicious movements around the two airports in Tripoli over the past three days,” said Mohamed, a Misrata-based rebel spokesman who only gave his first name. “We think the [Gadhafi] family could be out of the country already.”
Speculation about Col. Gadhafi’s swift departure came amid reports that Libyan rebels had gained control of the country’s last functioning oil refinery and were tightening their stranglehold on the capital, Tripoli, the dictator’s base of operations.
Col. Gadhafi’s sons are prominent faces of the regime. Two of them — Khamis and Mutassim — have led the regime’s forces during the uprising. Another son, Seif al-Islam, has been the regime’s spokesman for the Western world and is believed to be his father’s successor.
The planes are at Mitiga International Airport, located about eight miles east of Tripoli, and the airport in Aziziyah. The Mitiga airport served as the U.S. Air Force facility known as Wheelus Air Base until the late 1950s.
NBC News on Thursday, citing unidentified U.S. officials, reported there are signs that Col. Gadhafi is preparing to flee to neighboring Tunisia.
In a sign the regime was trying to negotiate an end to the conflict, Col. Gadhafi’s prime minister, al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmudi, said the government was talking with the rebels. “We are also calling on all sides for a cease-fire,” Mr. al-Mahmudi said, according to an Associated Press report.
But rebel sources denied they were negotiating with the regime.
“The regime knows what we want: Gadhafi and his cronies should get out,” said a Guma el-Gamaty, the representative of the rebels’ Transitional National Council in Britain.
Earlier this week, a State Department spokeswoman dismissed the significance of the South African aircraft’s presence in Tripoli.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that the South African aircraft had Africa Union markings and had been put at the disposal of that organization.
“Our information is that those planes have been grounded in Libya since February, so this is not a new air arrival. These are a couple of South African planes that are — appear to be stuck there,” she said.
Meanwhile, the oil refinery is located in the strategic city of Zawiyah, where rebels have made great advances since their initial assault on Saturday.
A rebel victory in Zawiyah could leave Col. Gadhafi nearly cornered in his increasingly isolated stronghold in Tripoli, just 30 miles to the east along the Mediterranean coast.
Rebel fighters are closing in on the capital from the west and the south, while NATO controls the seas to the north.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.