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Senior U.S. diplomat holds talks in Tripoli

Sep 14, 2011, 2:34 a.m.
U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, attends a news conference in Benghazi in this August 20, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

By William Maclean

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya's new interim leader met the most senior U.S. official to visit Tripoli since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, though details of Wednesday's talks were not immediately available.

Reuters journalists saw Jeffrey Feltman, a key figure in U.S. Middle East policy, meet Mustafa Abdel Jalil at a public building in the capital. It was not clear when Feltman, who is Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, had arrived in Libya.

Compared to other parts of the country, Tripoli has been relatively stable since forces of the new ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) overran it three weeks ago. NTC fighters backed by NATO are trying to capture at least three towns still held by Gaddafi loyalists.

Interim government forces are besieging one of those last bastions, Bani Walid, 180 km (110 miles) south of Tripoli, along with Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast and Sabha, deep in the southern desert.

After a week of fighting NTC forces at Bani Walid have been urging people to leave before they try to storm the town. Scores of cars packed with families left Bani Walid on Wednesday as NTC forces broadcast messages telling them to go and handed out free petrol to help them evacuate.

"There is a lot of random shooting. It is much safer for my children to leave. Gaddafi militia men do not want to negotiate," Fathalla al-Hammali, 42, said, driving away from the town with his three young children.

Loyalist resistance has complicated NTC efforts to normalize life in the oil-rich North African state and the United Nations has voiced fears about the plight of civilians marooned inside besieged pro-Gaddafi towns, particularly Sirte.

GADDAFI STILL MISSING

Gaddafi's whereabouts are unknown. NTC officials have said he could be hiding in one of the outposts like Bani Walid, helping to rally a last stand against NATO-backed forces.

Bani Walid resident Isa Amr, 35, said the town was running out of fuel, food and water, making it impossible for his family to stay any longer. "Rebels gave us some petrol, enough to drive to Tripoli. The rebels are really helping us," he said.

NTC field commanders said people in Bani Walid had been told in radio messages they had two days to leave town.

"I think only 10 percent of the people are Gaddafi supporters. They are fanatics. And the rest are waiting to be liberated. We have given them two more days to leave the city," NTC fighter Abumuslim Abdu said.

The country's new rulers have hesitated to employ heavy-handed tactics to seize Bani Walid, which is the traditional home of the Warfalla tribe, Libya's largest.

Libya's interim rulers have said that, along with taking control of pro-Gaddafi enclaves, capturing or killing the fugitive leader is a priority and only then could Libya be declared "liberated."

The U.S. State Department said one of his sons, Saadi Gaddafi, who arrived in neighboring Niger on Sunday on one of four convoys of senior Gaddafi loyalists to have crossed the southern Sahara desert frontier, was being held there.

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