TRIPOLI // The fugitive Libyan despot Muammar Qaddafi insisted yesterday that his regime would return, calling the uprising that dislodged him a "charade" reliant on Nato support.
"The political system in Libya is a system based on the power of the people," Colonel Qaddafi said in remarks broadcast by Syria's Rai TV. "It is impossible that that system be removed."
Accused of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, Colonel Qaddafi went into hiding last month after National Transitional Council (NTC) forces took control of Tripoli. Members of his family have fled to Algeria and Niger.
Yesterday, NTC leaders attended a high-level meeting on Libya at the United Nations, which last week recognised the NTC as Libya's representative amid growing international support.
Barack Obama, the US president, told the meeting: "Today, the Libyan people are writing a new chapter in the life of their nation. After four decades of darkness, they can walk the streets, free from a tyrant."
Pro-Qaddafi forces holding out in several cities should "understand that the old regime is over, and it is time to lay down your arms and join the new Libya", Mr Obama said.
Mr Obama met the NTC head Mustafa Abdel Jalil for the first time on the sidelines of the UN meeting yesterday, and announced the return to Tripoli of a US ambassador.
In Tripoli, traffic once again clogs streets made barren last month by fighting that evicted Col Qaddafi's regime. The red, black and green banner of the NTC now flies in place of his green flag.
Schools reopening this week have witnessed scenes of frenzied celebration, with children singing revolutionary songs and jeering at "Bou Shafshoufa" - or "old frizzle-head" - a popular nickname for Col Qaddafi.
"All of this will be painted over, of course," said Salma Al Gaid, the headmistress of Taqadam school, indicating a Qaddafi-era mural of an enormous green eagle shredding an American flag in its talons. "There will be a new government now, and democracy."
For now, the NTC and the interim prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, still based in Benghazi, are the closest thing Libya has to a government.
Efforts to form an inclusive interim cabinet reportedly stalled over the weekend on disagreements among the pro-western liberals, Islamists and Qaddafi regime defectors who make up the NTC.
Questions have arisen over the role of Mr Jibril, reported Reuters, citing sources familiar with negotiations on the interim cabinet. There is also disagreement over whether a government should be formed while Qaddafi loyalists still control parts of Libya.
Civilians were fleeing the loyalist-held cities of Sirte and Bani Walid yesterday following days of fruitless assaults by NTC forces seeking to mop up pro-Qaddafi resistance there.
NTC commanders hoped initially that pro-Qaddafi forces in both cities would surrender quietly. But NTC forces have since faced withering defensive fire by snipers, mortar teams and anti-aircraft guns.
While skirmishes were reported yesterday outside Sirte, Col Qaddafi's coastal hometown, NTC forces appeared largely to hold back and regroup, according to news agencies.
NTC fighters said that yesterday's lull was to allow civilians to escape the city before large-scale attacks resume, Reuters said. Fleeing residents quoted by the news agency told of food shortages and a cut in electricity and communications networks.
Dozens of NTC fighters advancing towards Sirte from the east stormed into the town of Sultana, reported Agence France-Presse.
Crying "Allahu Akbar" and "Hold your heads high, you are Libyans," the fighters braved mortar and rocket fire to push loyalist forces out of the town, the news agency said.
Col Qaddafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said via Rai TV that pro-Qaddafi forces in Sirte had captured 17 foreigners, some French and British, fighting alongside NTC forces.
Officials from France and the NTC denied that claim, while Britain's foreign office said it had no information about it.
At the front lines outside Bani Walid, 144 kilometres south-east of Tripoli in a desert valley, NTC soldiers sat in small groups discussing battle plans, reported Reuters.
Meanwhile at Sabha, a desert city some 800km south of Tripoli, NTC forces overran the local airport and some neighbourhoods yesterday, according to NTC spokesmen cited by news agencies.
Long held by forces loyal to Col Qaddafi, the city has figured along with Sirte and Bani Walid in speculation over his whereabouts.
"Our flags are waving there over the airport and other parts of Sabha," said Col Ahmed Bani, the NTC's military spokesman, quoted by the Associated Press.
NTC fighters at Sabha also captured the loyalist general Belgacem Al Abaaj, said Mohammed Wardugu, a spokesman for the "Desert Shield Brigade" and brother of brigade commander Barka Wardugu, cited by Agence France-Presse.