BENGHAZI // The battle for Libya is far from over as brigades of NTC fighters close in on two major cities and move to control thousands of square kilometres of desert believed to be occupied by pockets of African mercenaries and Qaddafi loyalists, said one of the Libyan rebels top military commanders.
Fawzi Bukatif, the head of the Union of Revolutionary Forces on the eastern side, the director of the rebel army control room and top commander with the powerful February 17 brigade, spoke during an interview late on Saturday.
"Ours is a big country," he said. "We have information about a lot of troops still out there, but we are moving in on them. Once we gain control of the coast, we will push south."
Mr Bukatif said he was personally involved, along with the minister of defence, with negotiations for the surrender of Sirte and several small villages on the eastern side of the city. He said that the villages of Umm El Ghindel and Harawa have agreed to lay down their weapons, leaving only Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte as the final obstacle to linking up Tripoli and Benghazi.
NTC officials were also in direct talks with tribal leaders in Bani Walid, Reuters reported, although a Qaddafi spokesman told the news agency that the city would never surrender. On Saturday, the NTC moved Bani Walid's deadline to surrender up to Sunday at noon. An hour after the deadline passed, there were no reports of NTC forces moving on the city, located 150 kilometres south-east of Tripoli.
The National Transitional Council has yet to open formal dialogues with Sirte, but Mr Bukatif said that Qaddafi loyalists from outside the country had notified officials in Benghazi that they would like to negotiate the terms of a surrender. This prompted Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the NTC, to push up a deadline before military action by a week to September 10. The NTC also dispatched several lorries of food supplies for the civilians in the city that were expected to arrive imminently.
"We will know in or three days whether they are serious," Mr Bukatif said of the possible negotiations. He said a battle would not be difficult because Sirte was defended by the remnants of several pro-Qaddafi brigades who had seen their morale sunk in the last two weeks after rebels stormed the capital. There were also rebels hidden in the city, ready to help take the city, he said.
"The end is obvious for them and for us," Mr Bukatif said. "We could take the city easily."
Omar Ishkal and Ahmed Ibrahim, cousins of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, were believed to be in Sirte, he said. Abu Bakr Yunis Jabr, the minister of defence under Col Qaddafi, is believed to be in either Waddan or neighbouring Hun in the desert.
Another concern for the new government were the porous border regions near Chad, Sudan and Niger. Mr Bukatif said he could not reveal the source of the military's intelligence on mercenary groups crossing back and forth over the borders.
A southward conquest to stabilise the entire country was the next item on the agenda, after liberating Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha, he said.
The fear is "they can smuggle out figures of the Qaddafi regime" through the borders, he said. Several members of the Qaddafi regime already escaped the country through the western border into Algeria, including Qaddafi's wife and daughter.
Rebel brigades had pushed nearly to Zillah in the desert, securing crucial oilfields in Maradah on the way. Sirte was surrounded on both sides and soldiers were crossing the desert to cut off the city's southward road toward Sabha, Mr Bukatif said.
The complete security of the country could take months, giving the thousands of armed rebels plenty of work in the coming months. "We still have a lot of work to do," he said.