Rebels plan next move as deadline expires for pro-Qaddafi forces

Strongholds loyal to the ousted Libyan leader had until today to surrender, and the National Transitional Council says its top priority remains "liberating all Libyan soil".

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MISRATA // The deadline expired on Saturday for forces loyal to ousted Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi to surrender, with fighters of the country's new leadership poised to attack hold-out strongholds.

After fierce clashes on Friday in Bani Walid, a Qaddafi bastion southeast of Tripoli, an AFP reporter on the town's eastern front at Sedata some 60 kilometres (40 miles) south of Misrata could hear distant artillery fire.

NATO aircraft could also be heard overhead, he said.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) set Saturday as the deadline for towns still loyal to Qaddafi to surrender, and on-off talks have been going on for days over Bani Walid.

A number of former regime officials, including Qaddafi's spokesman Mussa Ibrahim, are believed to be holed up there.

NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who made a halt in the port city of Misrata en route to Tripoli for his first visit to the capital since its capture by forces of the new leadership, urged Qaddafi loyalists to allow his fighters a peaceful entry into their strongholds.

"We try to extend our hands to show peace to our brothers there to let our troops enter these cities peacefully without fighting," Abdel Jalil told reporters in Misrata where he came from the eastern city of Benghazi.

He said the new leadership's "first priority is to liberating all Libyan soil... places like Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha," referring to towns held by Qaddafi forces.

Abdel Jalil also said that the fugitive Qaddafi still posed a threat to Libya.

"We should not forget that Moamer Qaddafi is still alive and still has money and gold. These resources can be used to buy men," he said.

Earlier as he left Benghazi, Abdel Jalil told AFP his visit to Tripoli was "temporary," and that the council he heads would move to the capital only "after the (full) liberation" of Libya.

On another front near Bani Walid, NTC forces were massing some 30 kilometres from the town, an AFP reporter said.

Fighters returning from the front reported clashes between NTC "sleeper cells" and pro-Qaddafi forces in and near Bani Walid overnight, and said they were reinforcing advance positions amid "fierce resistance" from diehards.

According to chief NTC negotiator Abdullah Kenshil, "the attack will take place, but its timing will be decided by military leaders on the ground."

On Friday, a top NTC commander said "decisive military action" was imminent.

"Up to now these negotiations did not lead to positive results," said Salem Jeha -- a highly influential member of Misrata's military council -- just hours ahead of the midnight deadline.

"If the negotiations fail then there will be decisive action, decisive military action," Jeha, a former colonel in Qaddafi's army, said from the NTC military headquarters in Misrata.

"But where this military action takes place, that is a surprise. We are in position and we can move in any direction and this is our strength."

On Friday ahead of the deadline, fighting erupted in Bani Walid as pro-NTC elements inside the town clashed with Qaddafi forces.

Reports said one "revolutionary" fighter was killed and four wounded, and there were three deaths among pro-Qaddafi forces.

Columns of smoke and the crump of shelling could be heard by journalists outside Bani Walid as convoys carrying fighters and ammunition headed for the town 170 kilometres (105 miles) from Tripoli.

On Friday, NATO struck a surface-to-surface missile facility, a multiple rocket launcher near Sirte, a command and control node near Hun and a military facility near Jufrah, along with some more hits in other areas.

Speaking for the first time from Tripoli since it was captured on August 23, de facto premier Mahmud Jibril refused late Thursday to speculate on Qaddafi's whereabouts, but acknowledged the conflict would end only with his capture or "elimination."

The NTC fears Qaddafi will try to slip across one of Libya's porous borders.

In a defiant message on Thursday, Qaddafi dismissed as lies reports he had fled to Niger, insisting he was still in Libya.

Niger, which has also denied that he is there, vowed to respect international commitments if wanted former Libyan officials enter its territory.

"We are not talking about Qaddafi, but about those who are already in Niger," Justice Minister Marou Amadou told AFP, insisting that "we do not know" the fugitive's whereabouts.

France, spearheading the NATO campaign against Qaddafi forces, said it does not know where Qaddafi was.

"We don't have any information on where Qaddafi is," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.

"But I think (the latest battles) are the last spasms of his regime," Juppe said during a flying visit to Australia, adding that the calls of surrender have not been heard by Qaddafi loyalists and the "NTC must now complete its work."

Niamey earlier confirmed having allowed in a dozen Qaddafi aides, including internal security chief Mansour Daw, for "humanitarian reasons."

They are being held under house arrest in Niamey.