TRIPOLI // A Libyan government spokesman yesterday denied reports that Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's wife, daughter and top oil official had fled the country.
Days after the reports first surfaced, which claimed Colonel Qaddafi and his family were on the southern Tunisian island of Djerba, Libyan officials produced no evidence of the whereabouts of the three, raising new questions about Colonel Qaddafi's ability to hold together his entourage in the face of Nato bombing and pressure for him to quit.
Libyan rebel officials, as well as official sources in Tunisia, have also said that Shokri Ghanem, a former prime minister who runs Libya's oil sector, had left Libya via Tunisia.
Khaled Kaim, Libya's deputy foreign minister and one of the main government spokesmen, said: "Shokri Ghanem is in his position, at work. If he's out of the country he'll be coming back. As for the family of the leader, they're still here in Libya. Where else would they be?"
Mr Ghanem, who was also head of Libya's National Oil Co, crossed into neighboring Tunisia by road on Monday and defected, according to a Tunisian security official and Abdel Moneim al Houni, a former Libyan Arab League representative who was among the first wave of Libyan diplomats to defect.
A person who answered a cell phone listed for Mr Ghanem in Austria and identified herself as his daughter said the family had had no contact with him since Friday and did not know his whereabouts. The woman's identity could not be verified.
Prominent members of Colonel Qaddafi's government who have abandoned the regime include the foreign minister, justice minister, a former UN General Assembly president and a number of other diplomats.
The Nato secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said a combination of strong military and political pressure and opposition support would eventually lead to the collapse of Colonel Qaddafi's rule.
Libya is under international sanctions and Nato has been carrying out air strikes on the oil producer since Colonel Qaddafi used force to put down a revolt against his rule that was inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world. The conflict has reached deadlock in military terms, which has left Western governments counting increasingly that Colonel Qaddafi's administration will collapse from within.
The past few days have also seen a flurry of diplomatic activity focusing on a possible ceasefire deal, with pro-Qaddafi officials travelling to Moscow for talks and United Nations envoys trying to broker an agreement.
One Tripoli resident said the everyday machinery of government seemed to have stopped functioning, though Colonel Qaddafi's security forces were still in evidence and cracking down on signs of dissent.
"There is no government any more. You call people and they're just not there. Even the people around Qaddafi you don't see any more."
Meanwhile Colonel Qaddafi's forces shelled the main rebel stronghold in a strategic mountain range southwest of the Libyan capital yesterday, pounding the area with rockets, a resident said.
The Nafusa mountains, which slice across the desert south of Tripoli to the western border with Tunisia, have been a key zone of opposition since the early days of the uprising against Qaddafi's more than 40-year rule in mid-February. Although Colonel Qaddafi's forces control most of western Libya, rebels have linked up with the mountain area's minority Berbers to keep his forces out of the highest points, denying them a military advantage.
Yesterday, rebels fought to hold back government troops rocketing their positions to the east and southeast of the city of Zintan, the rebel command center for the mountain range, said resident and activist Hamed Enbayah. The shelling killed at least one rebel fighter and wounded three others, he said.
The Nafusa mountains are the most important rebel-held swath of western Libya after the coastal city of Misrata, which has been under an even more punishing siege. Most of Libya's rebel forces are concentrated in the east of the country and have been unsuccessful in advancing westward toward the capital even after NATO warplanes began hitting Qaddafi's forces.
Points along the entire mountain range have been under intensified attack since early this week. Residents of some areas said the fighting had trapped them inside their homes and that they were cut off from food and medical supplies.
The situation in the Nafusa mountains "remains dire, really dire," said Jalal al-Gallal, a spokesman for the rebel governing council, based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Hospitals are overwhelmed with casualties and running out of supplies. Many of the wounded from one village, Kiklah, were being smuggled out on donkeys because government forces were blocking evacuations, the rebel council said.
It has appealed for help in establishing a safe corridor to deliver humanitarian aid and allow the wounded to be evacuated.
The council's vice chairman, Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga, said: "It is abundantly clear that Qaddafi forces continue to target innocent civilians. The blocking of food, water and medical supplies is unacceptable."
BelJassem, a fighter from a Berber village near the mountain town of Yafrin, said on Wednesday that Qaddafi forces had shelled that area repeatedly. "We dig trenches and hide in there at night," said BelJassem, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals.
Omar Hussein, a spokesman for the Nafusa mountain rebels, claimed that a government soldier killed in fighting near the town of Nalut, closer to the border with Tunisia, was found chained to his destroyed vehicle, apparently to prevent him from fleeing.
Elsewhere in the west, along the Mediterranean coast, a resident of the city of Ajaylat reached by telephone from Benghazi said Qaddafi forces stormed in Wednesday and kidnapped hundreds of people, most of them young men and boys.
She said they moved house to house and appeared to be trying to take one male from each home. By evening, they retreated from the town, she said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Ajaylat is known as a smuggling haven for people who take Libya's cheap fuel across the border to Tunisia, about 80 kilometers away, and smuggle back other goods.
The kidnapping claim could not be independently confirmed, but Amnesty International has made similar allegations of abductions in Misrata, saying scores of young men were "subjected to enforced disappearance."
In Libya's capital, meanwhile, hundreds of Colonel Qaddafi's loyalists staged an overnight show of support, proclaiming that the rebel insurgency was nearing an end.
In the main square in Tripoli, crowds of teenagers, young men and security officers turned out for the government-sponsored rally, spraying gunfire into the air, setting off fireworks and waving green Libyan flags.
Some of them said they were celebrating because they heard on state TV that Qaddafi loyalists were holding similar rallies in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, though there was no evidence of such a demonstration there.
Benghazi has been firmly under rebel control since the start of the uprising.
"We are celebrating our unity of citizens in east and west," said Raid Mansour, 35, carrying his young daughter on his shoulders. "Now we all think the same: We want freedom and for Moammar Qaddafi to be victorious," Mansour said.
The gathering appeared to have been organised in an attempt to reassure Libyans that the regime was standing strong three months into an uprising that has left most of the east in rebel hands, halted the country's oil exports and drawn in the punishing Nato air campaign.
AFP and Reiuters