- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 7, 2011

TRIPOLI Tripoli’s military commander said Wednesday that Moammar Gadhafi is cornered, but another senior defense official said Libya’s new rulers have no idea where the fugitive former dictator 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 Col. Gadhafi?

The ousted leader, who ruled Libya for nearly 42 years, has not been seen in public for months. He has released only audio messages, trying to rally his supporters and lash out at his opponents.

He fled after opposition fighters swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21. The former rebels are still battling regime loyalists in the Gadhafi strongholds of 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, said Col. Gadhafi is 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 identifying Col. Gadhafi’s whereabouts.

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

Two fighters close to Libya’s new leaders said they believe Col. Gadhafi is inside Bani Walid. They did not offer details.

However, Deputy Defense Minister Mohammad Taynaz said the former rebels have no idea where Col. Gadhafi is. He said the deposed dictator could still 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 that 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 Republic capital of Prague that the military alliance’s sole aim in Libya is to guarantee the safety of the country’s civilian population.

Libya’s new rulers took a symbolic step toward shifting their administration from the eastern city of Benghazi to Tripoli with the arrival of Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the former rebels’ acting Cabinet, in the capital.

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.

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