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As NTC fighters close in on Bani Walid, 'under the table' talks underway

Negotiations mark a new phase in the battle for Libya, with village elders, imams and tribal leaders meeting unofficially to find a way to convince militias to surrender without the kind of bloodshed that marked the first six months of the civil war.

Women celebrate the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi's regime in Tripoli.
Women celebrate the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi's regime in Tripoli.

AN NAWFILIYAH, LIBYA // Under the midday sun in this desert town on the front line between pro-Qaddafi forces and the National Transitional Council army, lorries full of NTC fighters arrived to pray alongside residents at the whitewashed mosque.

Only liberated from loyalist soldiers four days earlier, there was a celebratory closeness between the two groups. A young fighter distributed sweets to children. As the imam finished his sermon, he invoked holy vengeance on Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's regime.

"May God defeat Qaddafi," his voice boomed. "And show him what he has done to us."

Yesterday, NTC forces increased pressure on the last remaining Qaddafi strongholds, moving up the deadline to noon today for the city of Bani Walid to surrender. "Either they raise the white flag ... or the fighting begins," the NTC commander, Abdulrazzak Naduri, told Agence France-Presse.

Meanwhile in An Nawfiliyah, only 30 kilometres up the road towards Col Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte, informal negotiations were under way for loyalists and local militias to throw down their weapons and recognise the NTC government that swept into Tripoli two weeks ago and declared itself the rightful steward of Libya.

These negotiations mark a new phase in the battle for the country, with village elders, imams and tribal leaders meeting "unofficially" to find a way to convince militias to surrender without the kind of bloodshed that marked the first six months of the civil war.

"God willing, I think we will finish this without fighting," General Dawoud Issa Al Maghrebi, the commander of a brigade from Ajdabia, said outside the An Nawfiliyah mosque. He described negotiations as being "under the table" with villages and towns along the way to Sirte.

"We want to make sure that no civilians are hurt," he said. "Those are Libyans in those towns."

In the capital, the NTC announced the creation of a supreme security council assigned with protecting Tripoli. "This committee represents all those who are concerned for the security of our new capital," Ali Tarhuni, who chairs the body as well as the NTC's executive committee, told reporters.

In their first meeting, the 17 members of the committee agreed that the capital's security was the general responsibility of the interior ministry, which resumed work yesterday, and of the police force in particular.

"The main goal is to protect citizens, as well as public and private establishments, and to eliminate what remains of pro-Qaddafi groups, or what is called the fifth column," Mr Tarhuni said.

Estimates of casualties on both sides of the fighting range from at least 10,000 to more than 30,000.

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the NTC, said yesterday the cities of Sirte, Bani Walid, Jufra and Sabha - which together form a triangle in the middle of the country from the coast to hundreds of kilometres into the desert - were surrounded.

The rest of the cities had until this coming Saturday to surrender. Otherwise, the forces will move against them, Mr Jalil said.

Humanitarian aid and utilities had been switched on to ease relations between the two sides. There was a hope that Qaddafi loyalists could better understand the situation by tuning in to local and foreign news stations reporting on the situation in Libya.

The challenge is to defuse tribal tensions, but also to convince some of Col Qaddafi's closest generals and allies that the better option is to face the "fair trial" offered by the NTC, rather than see their countrymen killed in a hail of bullets and rockets. Mr Jalil said they had surrounded Sirte on three sides.

Shamsiddin Ben Ali, a spokesman of the NTC, said that its top negotiators were up against an armed contingent holding the majority of the populations in these cities hostage.

In Sirte, for instance, there were four main tribes with the Qaddafi tribe the smallest.

"The other three are bigger, but they are not armed," he said. Of the opposition commanders that had communicated with the NTC, some were asking for immunity from prosecution for "murders and torture", something the NTC would not grant, Mr Ben Ali said.

Saif Al Islam, Col Qaddafi's son, may also be playing a spoiler role in the negotiations. His taunts over radio and television have served to inspire some loyalists to hold out for a counter-attack, officials say. A spokesman for the regime, Moussa Ibrahim, told Reuters in Tunisia that he and Saif were travelling around the southern side of Tripoli. "We are still very strong," he said.

More members of the Qaddafi regime - possibly even the colonel - could be in these cities. With them are likely to be contingents of bodyguards, who could threaten local populations or buy their allegiance with large amounts of cash said to have been taken from the government coffers as Tripoli fell.

Just around the corner from the mosque in An Nawfiliyah on Friday, a loud argument erupted among village elders. One man said the slow progress of NTC fighters into the heartland of the country was the result of tribal differences. Another argued that it was even more specific: families within the tribes were themselves divided over whom to support.

The one thing they agreed on is that Col Qaddafi, who ruled the country for 42 years, doled out incomparable advantages to his hometown of Sirte. Residents of An Nawfiliyah described a gradient of patronage that culminated with the wide boulevards, conference centres and villas. Meanwhile, they lived in isolation. Some men as old as 30 had never had a full-time job; limited medical care was provided.

"Everything we want to do, we have to go and get a paper from Sirte," said Sherif Yousef, 64. There was no comparison between the poorer village of An Nawfiliyah and Sirte, he said.

In the new Libya, there will be a reckoning for those who were perceived to have been given out more than their fair share of the country's spoils.

"For a dictator to stay in power so long, he had to give privilege to some people over others," said Adel Sanfaz, a NTC soldier who said he owned a grocery store before the uprising began. "Those people were loyal to him" and are afraid of what will befall them once the revolutionaries storm their cities.

But Mr Sanfaz echoed the message given out by the head of the NTC, Mr Jalil, that they would be given a fair trial and not be subject to retaliation.

"We are willing to forget what has happened," he said. "We are not going to seek revenge. For us, it was an act of good will to give them another week, another chance to surrender."



* With additional reporting by Reuters