Libyans debate Gadhafi's whereabouts

Thursday, September 8, 2011
A Libyan fighter plants the flag of the former rebels Wednesday at a checkpoint in Al Ajaylat west of Tripoli, Libya. The new colors of the flag decorate a lot of streets and buildings after the six-month civil war that ended Gadhafi’s 42-year rule and sent him into hiding. (Francois Mori ~ Associated Press)

TRIPOLI, Libya -- A Tripoli military official said Wednesday that Moammar Gadhafi is cornered and the days before he is captured or killed are numbered, but another senior defense official contended that Libya's new rulers have no idea where the fugitive former leader is.

The comments are the latest in a series of conflicting statements on the most pressing question still haunting the North African nation -- where is Gadhafi?

The ousted leader, who ruled Libya for nearly 42 years, hasn't been seen in public for months and has released only audio messages trying to rally his supporters and lash out at his opponents. He went into hiding after opposition fighters swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21. The former rebels are still battling regime loyalists in three Gadhafi strongholds -- Bani Walid, Sabha and Sirte.

Hunting down Gadhafi would help seal the new rulers' hold on the country, and likely trigger the collapse of the remaining regime loyalists still fighting the former rebels.

Anis Sharif, a spokesman for Tripoli's military council, said that Gadhafi was still in Libya and had been tracked using advanced technology and human intelligence. Rebel forces have taken up positions on all sides of the fugitive leader's presumed location, with none more than 40 miles (60 kilometers) away, he said, without elaborating.

"He can't get out," said Sharif, who added the former rebels are preparing to either detain him or kill him. "We are just playing games with him," he said.

He said an operations room manned by about 20 people has been set up in Tripoli to try to track Gadhafi's movements and coordinate the search.

Thousands of fighters have converged on areas outside Bani Walid, some 90 miles southeast of Tripoli, and have threatened to attack if residents don't surrender by Saturday. Officials have said the town emerged as a focus because of the number of prominent regime loyalists believed to be inside.

More truckloads of former rebels arrived Wednesday outside Bani Walid, a dusty city of 100,000 strung along the low ridges overlooking a dried up desert river valley on the road connecting Sirte and Sabha.

Abdullah Kenshil, the chief negotiator for the rebels in Bani Walid, told reporters outside a field clinic in Wishtat that Gadhafi's son and one-time heir apparent Seif al-Islam appears to be one of those hiding in the area.

"There's evidence Seif was sighted yesterday in the district of Bani Walid," Kenshil said. "There are a lot of caves, but he has left from the center of the city. No talks with Seif al-Islam."

Two fighters close to Libya's new leaders said that they believe Gadhafi himself is in the town. The fighters, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said they based their suspicion on conversations with residents but did not provide more details.

Bani Walid is the homeland of Libya's largest tribe, the Warfala. In 1993, some Warfala attempted a coup against Gadhafi but were brutally crushed. The masterminds were executed, their homes demolished and their clans shunned while Gadhafi brought other members of the tribe to dominance, giving them powerful government jobs and lucrative posts.

However, Deputy Defense Minister Mohammad Taynaz told the AP that the former rebels don't know where Gadhafi is, and said the fugitive leader could still be hiding in tunnels under Tripoli.

He said the manhunt was not a focus for his men.

"Our priority is to liberate all of Libya," he said. "Once the country is free, there will be nowhere for him to hide in Libya."

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