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Libyan forces push into Qaddafi's last bastion

Regime loyalists put up a fight in remaining towns, undermining the National Transitional Counci's efforts to show it is firmly in control of the country.

BANI WALID // Libyan forces who have launched an assault on the last holdout towns of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's loyalists were still meeting resistance in one desert town yesterday and said they had edged towards the ousted ruler's birthplace, Sirte.

"We are inside Bani Walid, we control big chunks of the city. There are still pockets of resistance," Sabhil Warfalli, an NTC fighter, said as he drove away from the front line in the town 150 kilometres south-east of Tripoli.

He said pro-Qaddafi forces were now concentrated in the central market area.

A pro-Qaddafi radio station appealed for the city's 100,000 people to fight to the death.

"We urge the people of Bani Walid to defend the city against the rats and armed gangs. Don't back down. Fight to the death. We are waiting for you. You are just a bunch of gangsters. God is on our side," an announcer said.

Libya's National Transitional Council is trying to capture Col Qaddafi's last bastions and find the fugitive leader to assert its grip over the vast North African oil-producer and begin a countdown to elections and a new constitution.

Qaddafi's loyalists also control Sirte, which sits on the main east-west coastal motorway, effectively cutting Libya in two. Advancing NTC troops said the front line was now about 90km east of the city.

Fighters were firing tanks and howitzers amid the sound of heavy machine-gun fire and the roar of Nato warplanes overheard.

"There were clashes this morning and Gaddafi forces were firing Grad rockets, but we managed to advance a little bit and we will enter Sirte very soon," said the fighter Salah Al Shaery.

The pro-Gaddafi towns still holding out, as well as the uncertain loyalties of the vast desert interior, undermine the NTC's efforts to show it is firmly in control of the country.

Bouzaid Dorda, the head of Col Gaddafi's external security organisation, was arrested by anti-Qaddafi fighters, witnesses said yesterday.

The NTC had given the main pro-Gaddafi towns - Sirte, Bani Walid and the remote desert outpost of Sabha - until Saturday to surrender or face attack. Fighting around Sirte and Bani Walid erupted a day before the deadline.

Anti-Gaddafi fighters believe one or two of the ousted leader's sons may be holed up in Bani Walid. Some NTC officials have even suggested Col Qaddafi might be there. Others say he may be hiding deeper in the Sahara.

Several former Gaddafi officials and generals have fled across the vast desert to neighbouring Niger. The toppled leader's wife and three of his children found sanctuary in Algeria last month.

Some civilians managed to flee Bani Walid yesterday.

"We live right in the centre. I'm scared. We are leaving because we want to be on the side of the revolution," said a man in a car with his wife, children and other relatives.

* Reuters

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