TARHOUNA, Libya (AP) — Libyan rebels said Sunday that tribal leaders in a besieged pro-Moammar Gadhafi stronghold are divided over what to do and will likely surrender rather than see their followers fight one another.
Rebel forces control most of the oil-rich North African nation and are moving forward with setting up a new government, but the ousted dictator and his staunchest allies remain on the run and enjoy support in several central and southern areas.
The rebels have surrounded Bani Walid, some 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, after giving loyalists entrenched there and several other towns until Saturday to surrender peacefully or face an assault.
Col. Ahmed Bani, the rebel's military spokesman based in Benghazi, said he expects members of Libya's largest tribe, the Warfala, which dominates Bani Walid, to give up rather than turn against each other.
"They will give up at the end because they are cousins and they don't want to spill each other's blood," he said, without elaborating.
Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, who is representing the rebels' transitional council in the Bani Walid talks, has said negotiators were holding face-to-face talks with tribal members from both camps — those who want to join the opposition movement and senior officials who remain loyal to Gadhafi.
Rebel officials have given conflicting statements about the situation in Bani Walid and other loyalist areas, and many opposition fighters stationed outside the hilltop town are eager to move in.
NATO, meanwhile, reported bombing a military barracks, a police camp and several other targets near Sirte overnight, as well as targets near Hun, a possible staging ground in the desert halfway between Sirte and Sabha. It also reported bombing an ammunition storage facility near Bani Walid.
Thousands of rebel fighters have converged on Bani Walid in recent days, with the closest forces at least 10 miles (15 kilometers) from the town center.
Rebels from Misrata, a western port that played a central role in the war, reported late Saturday they faced no resistance when they took over two military camps on the outskirts of Bani Walid.
"Negotiations are over, and we are waiting for orders" to attack, said Mohammed al-Fassi, a rebel commander at a staging area about 45 miles (70 kilometers) from Bani Walid. "We wanted to do this without bloodshed, but they took advantage of our timeline to protect themselves."
Al-Fassi said more Gadhafi loyalists have moved into Bani Walid from the south, but did not know how many.
The 1-million-strong Warfala make up one-sixth of Libya's population. Gadhafi said in an audio message last week that the Warfala would be among the tribes defending him to the death.
But Bani Walid also has a history of opposition to Gadhafi. Western diplomats in Libya and opposition leaders abroad reported in 1993 that the air force had put down an uprising by army units in Misrata and Bani Walid. They said many officers were executed and arrested.
Fayez Jibril, a longtime Libyan opposition figure speaking from exile in Cairo, said Gadhafi tried to exploit tribal differences by giving some groups, like the Warfala and Gadhafi's own Gadhdadhfa, privileges and sidelining others. But Jibril said Libyans had united in the past against colonial rule, and he believed they would do so now against Gadhafi.
Jibril, who has close contacts with rebel commanders on the ground in Libya, said in Sirte and Sabha, a branch of Gadhdadhfa tribe called Al-Kahous has provided a haven to top Gadhafi officials. The officials are accused of abuses, including rapes, in the regime's crackdown on the rebellion, Jibril said.
"The crimes these people have committed are unforgivable in a conservative country like Libya," he said. "These people are dead and they know that they are dead, so they are fighting because they have no other option."
The rebel military spokesman added that residents have told the rebels that one of Gadhafi's sons, Seif al-Islam, had fled to Bani Walid soon after Tripoli fell, but left recently for fear townspeople would hand him over to the rebels.
Seif al-Islam Gadhafi once had been expected to succeed his father, and was indicted alongside him on international charges of crimes against humanity in their attempt to quash the rebellion that broke out in February. Last week, a man claiming to be Seif al-Islam Gadhafi made an appeal from hiding that was carried by a Syrian-based TV station, urging his father's supporters to keep up the fight even if it means "we are going to die on our land."
Many have speculated that the elder Gadhafi is hiding somewhere around his hometown of Sirte, Bani Walid or the loyalist town of Sabha, deep in the Libyan desert. He and Seif al-Islam have been heard trying to rally supporters in defiant audio recordings broadcast on the Syrian-based Al-Rai television station but no concrete information about their whereabouts has emerged.
Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed reporting.
- Bani Walid