- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 18, 2011

BANI WALID, Libya — Libyan rebels finally in control of a key stronghold of ousted leader Moammar Gadhafi’s backers dug up yards in searches for hidden weapons Tuesday, a concrete sign that the months-long battle for Bani Walid was virtually over.

On another similar front, revolutionary forces launched another assault on Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, hoping to dislodge his dug-in loyalists.

Libya’s new rulers are holding up declaring victory and setting a timetable for elections until both centers are under their control. Gadhafi himself remains in hiding.

In the capital Tripoli, visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. wanted to see Gadhafi killed or captured.

In Bani Walid, field commander Said Younis said fighters were searching for high level Gadhafi loyalists who had escaped to the city, including Gadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam, one of his closest political aides and spokesman.

“Seif was seen was on Thursday. He was eating in a desert village close to the city,” Younis told the Associated Press.

Bani Walid is a valley city protected by many steep mountains and valleys, where Gadhafi loyalist snipers took positions during the fiercest battles. Younis said many loyalist fighters have fled to caves in the mountains to hide from the revolutionary forces.

In the backyard of a house in Bani Walid, 10 fighters dug a hole, revealing a cache of Kalashnikov assault rifles and ammunition.

“We’ve been finding weapons and ammunition hidden in people’s yards since we liberated the city, all over,” said Ayman Mahdi, as he dug.

Ahmed Saad, a field commander from Zlitan in the western mountains, who helped in Bani Walid forces take back their town, said forces were also searching for underground tunnels similar to those found under Gadhafi’s former Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli.

“Prisoners we captured from Bani Walid admitted the existence of these tunnels where some of the loyalists may still be hiding,” Saad said.

Bani Walid’s center, which was deserted on Tuesday. Buildings were pockmarked from bullets and rocket fire. The only doctors in the main hospital were foreigners.

A revolutionary commander on the scene, Ali Abdel-Rahman, said fighters were able to gain control over Bani Walid on Sunday evening after receiving much-needed ammunition and supplies the day before. He said they faced little resistance, although three revolutionary fighters were killed.

“We didn’t find a regular army but only loyalists of Gadhafi, snipers with automatic weapons,” he said. “Some of the Gadhafi brigades took off their uniforms and vanished.”

He said even families had fled the area. “There was a widespread perception that there would be a massacre here and pools of blood, but on the contrary, it was very bloodless, swift and with no resistance.”

It has been more than two months since the former rebels gained control of the capital and much of the rest of the oil-rich North African nation. Persistent fighting has prevented Libya’s new leaders from declaring final victory.

While welcoming successes in Bani Walid, Libya’s new leaders have said they would declare liberation only after the fall of Sirte. The capture of the coastal city 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of the capital would have symbolic value, as well as giving them control of the country’s ports and harbors.

In Sirte, the coastal hometown of the ousted dictator, revolutionary forces pushed in from the east on Tuesday to try to overcome last pockets of resistance.

Revolutionary fighters have been locked in battle in Sirte, suffering heavy casualties, after launching what they said would be an all-out final assault on Oct. 7.

The longtime leader has been on the run since Tripoli fell in late August and he has issued several audio recordings trying to rally supporters from his hiding place.

NATO has pledged to continue airstrikes for as long as necessary, saying pro-Gadhafi forces continue to pose a threat to civilians in Libya. The alliance said it hit a command center comprising nine vehicles near Bani Walid on Monday.

There have also been reports of looting as revolutionary forces closed in on the two areas that have waged the fiercest resistance.

“The fighters who liberated Bani Walid are not the ones who looted the houses, but the fighters who came later on to comb the area. They stole and looted from houses,” he said.

In an unannounced visit to Libya on Tuesday, Clinton brought pledges of new U.S. aid totaling $11 million. That will boost Washington’s contribution to Libya since the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi began in February to roughly $135 million.

Speaking to a group of students, Clinton said she hoped the former Libyan leader would be killed or caught soon.

Until now, the U.S. has generally avoided saying that Gadhafi should be killed.

Also Tuesday, NATO spokeswoman says the military alliance is “very close” to terminating the 7-month long bombing campaign in Libya.

Spokeswoman Carmen Romero said it is still too early to set the exact date because of the continuing threat to civilians from pro-Gadhafi fighters.

Lee reported from Tripoli, Libya. Christopher Gillette contributed to this report from Sirte, Libya.

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