BENGHAZI // As young soldiers and family members shovelled red dirt onto the still-wet concrete sealing the grave of Abdel Kareem Mohammed Senussi, his fellow fighters raised their machine guns in the air and emptied their clips.
"This settles it," growled Salem Moussa Omar, one of the fighters who escorted his body on the nearly six-hour drive from the front line near Sirte. "Sirte is going to be destroyed. They should taste what Libya has tasted for the last six months."
His comments came just hours before a deadline from the new Libyan government and its military for the surrender of fighters loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha. Those cities form a final triangular stronghold of the old regime, stretching from the coast between Benghazi and Tripoli to deep in the Sahara desert.
Last night fighting took place ahead of the deadline when Qaddafi loyalists fired rocket barrages at forces of Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) north of Bani Walid and east of the former dictator's hometown, Sirte, Reuters reported.
Hours later, NTC forces said they had entered Bani Walid and were fighting Qaddafi forces in the streets.
Senussi, 31, died during an assault on Wadi Al Ahmar, or the Red Valley, on Thursday just 60 kilometres east of Sirte.
During the past two weeks, the rebel army has been amassing at the edges of Sirte and Bani Walid. Heavy artillery, pickup trucks with machine guns, and some tanks were seen near An Nawfaliyah, on the east, preparing for a potential assault. In the past few days, fighting had broken out for the first time in more than a week as rebel fighters pushed into the Red Valley and Umm Khunfis.
His fellow soldiers said Senussi died when he was hit by an anti-aircraft round on the left side of his head, killing him instantly. Seven other rebels were killed and several African mercenaries were killed on the other side. One older Libyan was captured.
"I said to him 'Why are you fighting me?' You are like my father," Mr Omar recounted. "He said nothing."
From a strategic point of view, the new government of Libya could not wait any longer for negotiations, said Bayless Parsley, an analyst at the intelligence firm Stratfor in Houston, Texas. Not only are Qaddafi loyalists holding onto strategic infrastructure - roads connecting the city, a port, oilfields, and water pipelines - but they were stopping the country from getting back on its feet.
"Something has to give," he said. "Certainly, the rebels cannot let this situation persist for much longer. They claim they don't want to shed any blood, but I believe they are fearful of what it may entail to take those cities."
Libyans still "can't rest comfortably at night until they know that they've pacified the entire country", he said. The country is still stuck in "phase one" and "split in half".
"It's a military imperative to move in on these cities," Mr Parsley said.
Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the NTC's interim cabinet, told reporters on Thursday that the country was at "a stage where we have to unify and be together".
"Once the battle is finished ... the political game can start," he said.
While rebel fighters swept into Tripoli more than two weeks ago, their progress in securing the country has since slowed. Several recordings have been released by Col Qaddafi, still in hiding, who called upon Libyans to fight the NTC to the death.
Col Qaddafi said in a broadcast on Syrian-based Arrai TV: "We will not leave our ancestral land ... The youths are now ready to escalate the resistance against the rats in Tripoli and to finish off the mercenaries."
Interpol yesterday issued arrest warrants for Col Qaddafi, his son Saif Al Islam and the intelligence chief Abdullah Al Senussi, who are all wanted by the International Criminal Court for suspected crimes against humanity.
Meanwhile, there were signs that many top officials and military officers under the former leader were fleeing the country. A group of 14 Libyans, including the Tuareg commander of Col Qaddafi's southern troops, General Ali Kana, arrived in a convoy of four-wheel drive vehicles in Niger on Thursday, according to security sources quoted by Reuters.
The officials were staying in a hotel owned by Libya in the northern city of Agadez.
The funeral of Senussi, in a simple graveyard on the outskirts of Benghazi, augured a potentially bloody final phase of the six-month Libyan revolution, but it also reflected the tensions that exist in the country after the fall of Tripoli. The hope had been that the new government could negotiate with tribal elders and former Qaddafi regime officials, but by late yesterday there was no sign of an agreement.
Maraja El Senussi, an uncle of the fighter with tears welling up in his eyes, vowed that the family did not want revenge.
"Even though they are killing our men, we must protect the revolution," he said. "We don't want revenge. We want this to end with not even one bullet fired."
Just then, two men wearing camouflage fatigues let off a deafening fusillade of bullets into the sky. Stone-faced, they packed into their pickup trucks and headed back towards Sirte.
* With additional reporting by Reuters