TRIPOLI // More than 30,000 people were killed and 50,000 wounded during the six-month civil war to bring down Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, Libya's interim health minister said yesterday, hours after the former dictator exhorted supporters to keep fighting.
The estimates of the war's toll were based partly on reports from hospitals, local officials and former NTC commanders, Naji Barakat of the National Transitional Council told the Associated Press.
With the former rebels surrounding several loyalist strongholds and further battles anticipated, there are fears many more could die before Col Qaddafi is finally killed or captured.
At least 10 rockets were fired yesterday at NTC forces near Bani Walid. The desert town 145 kilometres south of the Libyan capital has been surrounded by the former rebels who sought to negotiate a peaceful entry into the city, held by loyalist fighters believed to number between 100 and 200.
"We are pushing forward, we have encircled the city now, we are ready to go in to liberate Bani Walid," said Abdallah Bin Qtanysh, an NTC military spokesman quoted by Reuters. "All roads into the city have now been blocked, no one can escape."
Describing the NTC as "mercenaries, thugs and traitors" in remarks broadcast by Syria's Rai TV, Col Qaddafi declared that "we are ready to start the fight in Tripoli and everywhere else, and rise up against them".
Col Qaddafi's son, Saif Al Islam, and his spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, were rumoured to be in the capital last weekend. The concentration of loyalist troops has some NTC commanders speculating that Col Qaddafi himself may be there also, Reuters reported.
The toppled dictator has not been seen publicly for months and is believed to have fled Tripoli when the city fell last month to NTC forces.
Col Qaddafi is wanted for trial by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, which has accused him of war crimes. ICC war crimes prosecutor Luis-Moreno Ocampo, asked Interpol yesterday to help capture him.
Authorities in Niger have detained officials from Col Qaddafi's regime who fled in recent days to the capital, Niamey, said US State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, quoted by Agence France-Presse.
Ms Nuland said the group of Libyans who entered Niger numbered about 20 to 25 people based on information supplied by Niger authorities, calling earlier reports of a 200-car convoy "overblown".
The US is urging African countries to deny refuge to Col Qaddafi and his regime, and to step up surveillance of their borders.
The NTC is gradually extending its control over Libya's interior from the country's coastal region.
NTC forces have moved into Waddan, according to the military spokesman Farouk Ben Hamida, quoted by Bloomberg. The town is 225km south of Sirte, Col Qaddafi's coastal home city.
Sirte has figured along with Bani Walid and the southern city of Sabha as potential locations for the fugitive. NTC forces surrounding Sirte have given loyalist fighters there until tomorrow to surrender or face an assault.
Meanwhile in Tripoli, Libya's central bank said yesterday that a delivery of bank notes from Britain would ward off potential liquidity problems, Reuters reported, citing the bank governor, Gassem Azzoz.
Tripolitans have queued up outside banks in recent days, desperate for cash. ATM, wire transfer and credit card services in Tripoli have largely disappeared since fighting reached the city last month.
While the central bank sold 29 tonnes of its gold reserves to pay civil servant salaries in April and May, none of its assets have been stolen, Mr Azzoz said.
What does appear to be missing is a potentially large cache of shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles, as indicated by empty missile crates discovered on Wednesday in an arms stockpile disguised as a school-book warehouse, reported The New York Times.
Nine empty crates that apparently held two SA-7 Grail missiles each were found, plus one empty crate for two SA-24 missiles, the newspaper said. Markings on the SA-7 crates indicated nine consignments totalling 4,890 missiles sent from Russia to Tripoli.
Also missing are at least 4,000 Libyans, presumed dead or held prisoner in remaining Col Qaddafi strongholds, according to the NTC interim health minister Mr Barakat.
At least 30,000 have died so far in the six-month conflict, he said, with around half of those believed to be pro-Qaddafi fighters.
At least 1,700 NTC fighters and 100 civilians died last month in the battle for Tripoli, and 2,000 NTC fighters and civilians were killed in the gruelling struggle for Misurata, Mr Barakat said.