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U.S. shows flag in Tripoli, pledges support

Sep 14, 2011, 9:27 a.m.
Jeffrey D. Feltman, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, meets with Mostafa Abdel Jalil (R), Chairman of Libya's National Transitional Council interim government at office of the Islamic Call Society in Tripoli September 14, 2011. REUTERS/Anis Mili

Sarkozy may visit Tripoli and Benghazi, the seat of February's uprising, on Thursday, a French magazine said.

Historic tensions between the two cities -- capitals of provinces that were united as Libya only under Italian colonial rule in the 1930s -- are a concern for those hoping the NTC can rapidly establish democratic government nationwide.

NTC deputy chairman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga told Reuters in Benghazi that the chairman, Abdel Jalil, and the NTC would remain based in their eastern stronghold, rather than in the capital in the west, at least until the "liberation" of those cities remaining in the hands of Gaddafi's supporters.

The declaration of liberation, which some NTC officials have said might also be dependent on Gaddafi being found or killed, is a key signal to start a timetable for drawing up a new constitution and elections. There is already much debate within Libya about how such political decisions are to be made.

GADDAFI HOLDING OUT

Gaddafi has not been seen in public since June. His spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, speaking on a satellite phone from an undisclosed location, told Reuters the 69-year-old leader was still in Libya, in good spirits and ready to fight back.

"The leader is in good health, in high morale ... of course he is in Libya," said Ibrahim, who declined to give his own location. "The fight is as far away from the end as the world can imagine. We are still very powerful, our army is still powerful, we have thousands upon thousands of volunteers."

While his opponents would scoff at the idea of a successful Gaddafi comeback, they have been concerned at the difficulties they have had in taking the final bastions of his support.

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.

Daw Saleheen, who is heading regional forces battling for control of Bani Walid, said he was ready to use heavy weapons against and estimated 1,200 loyalists, who had placed rockets and mortars on civilian homes as well as dozens of 200 snipers.

"We know all their positions," Saleheen told reporters on the northern outskirts of his home town. "We have sent a message to all civilians that if they can they must leave now."

Independent information from the town is limited to comments from refugees. Previous deadlines set by the NTC forces have passed with little change in the stalemate.

Gaddafi's whereabouts are unknown. His wife and three of his children fled across the desert to Algeria. Another son, Saadi, who once played professional soccer, has joined some other high-level loyalists in Niger, further to the south.

A Niger government source said on Tuesday that Saadi had been transferred from the northern desert town of Agadez to the capital Niamey late on Tuesday: "He is in a secure place. Like the others he is here on humanitarian grounds. He is not being sought after. He is under surveillance, not imprisoned."

However, the source added that he was not free to move.

Gaddafi and another son Saif al-Islam, long the heir apparent, are wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC), though NTC officials have said Libyans would like to try them first.

(Reporting by Maria Golovnina near Bani Walid, Libya, Alexander Dziadosz and Joseph Logan in Tripoli, Sherine El Madany in Ras Lanuf, Emma Farge in Benghazi, Mark John and Bate Felix in Niamey and Barry Malone and Sylvia Westall in Tunis; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Peter Graff)

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