Gaddafi taunts West as rebels fight on

MUAMMAR GADDAFI taunted his Libyan enemies and their Western backers last night as rebel forces battled pockets of loyalists across Tripoli in an urgent quest to find and silence the fugitive strongman.

Rumours of Gaddafi or his sons being cornered, even sighted, swirled among excitable rebel fighters engaged in heavy machine gun and rocket exchanges. But two days after his compound was overrun, hopes of a swift end to six months of war were frustrated by fierce rearguard actions.

Western powers demanded Gaddafi’s surrender and worked to release frozen Libyan state funds, hoping to ease hardships and start reconstruction in the oil-rich state. But with loyalists holding out in the capital, in Gaddafi’s coastal home city and in the inland desert, violence could go on for some time.

“The tribes… must march on Tripoli,” Gaddafi said in an audio message broadcast on TV. “Do not leave Tripoli to those rats, kill them, defeat them quickly.

“The enemy is delusional, NATO is retreating,” he shouted, sounding firmer and clearer than in a similar speech released on Wednesday. Though his enemies believe Gaddafi, 69, is still in the capital, they fear he could flee by long-prepared tunnels and bunkers, to rally an insurgency.

Diehards numbering perhaps in the hundreds were keeping at bay squads of irregular, anti-Gaddafi fighters who had swept into the capital on Sunday and were now rushing from one site to another, firing assault rifles, machine guns and anti-aircraft cannon bolted to the backs of pick-up trucks.

While random gunfire broke out periodically across the city, some of its two million residents ventured out to stock up on supplies. Aid agencies sounded an alarm about food, water and also medical supplies, especially for hundreds of wounded.

But the new leadership said it had found huge stockpiles in Tripoli which would meet all demands for food, drugs and fuel.

In another sign of optimism, the official taking charge of financial and energy affairs said that Libya hoped to resume exporting crude oil next month and that damage to oil facilities during the fighting had been less than feared.

“The NOC (National Oil Corporation) initial estimate is that we can have about 500,000 to 600,000 barrels within two to three weeks,” Ali Tarhouni said. “And then we ramp this up to the normal, which is about 1.6 (million).

“My expectation is that this will be done within a year or so. The state of the oil fields are a lot better than expected… Most of the fields are more than 90% fine.”

It was the first time a National Transitional Council official was seen in the capital taking up the reins of government.

Nonetheless, in order to begin installing an administration in a nation run by an eccentric personality cult for 42 years, to offer jobs to young men now bearing arms and to heal ethnic, tribal and other divisions exacerbated by civil war, Libya’s new masters are anxious for hard cash quickly.

“We need urgent help,” Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the government-in-waiting, told Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Milan as western leaders tried to persuade others at the United Nations to ease sanctions and a freeze on Libyan foreign assets imposed to punish Gaddafi.

Some governments, notably in Africa where there was some sympathy for Gaddafi’s view of his Western enemies as colonialist aggressors, have been reluctant to agree.

After a meeting of officials in Istanbul, the contact group of allies against Gaddafi called on Libyans to avoid revenge. “The participants attached utmost importance to the realisation of national reconciliation in Libya,” it said. “They agreed such a process should be based on principles of inclusiveness, avoidance of retribution and vengeance.”

The group also urged the UN Security Council to pass a resolution freeing up cash quickly.

Jibril said the uprising, the bloodiest so far of the Arab Spring, could fall apart if funds were not forthcoming quickly: “The biggest destabilising element would be the failure… to deliver the necessary services and pay the salaries of the people who have not been paid for months. Our priorities cannot be carried out by the government without having the necessary money immediately.”

Rebel leaders, offering a million-euro reward, say the war will be over only when Gaddafi is found, “dead or alive.”

The ex-international high representative in Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, told Reuters there was a need for speed if Libya’s new rulers were to avoid a lingering threat from their predecessor. “The best time to capture these defeated leaders is immediately after the conflict finishes. The longer it takes the more chance they have of being spirited away to a place which is much more difficult to find.”

Meanwhile, a member of Libya’s rebel cabinet said it is moving immediately to Tripoli from its eastern stronghold city of Benghazi, as opponents of Gaddafi solidify their control over the capital they overran four days ago.

Ali Tarhouni made the announcement at a press conference in Tripoli.

He is the finance minister in the rebels’ National Transitional Council

Close call

LIBYAN commandos fighting Muammar Gaddafi came close to capturing the toppled leader on Wednesday when they raided a private home in Tripoli where he appeared to have been hiding, Paris Match magazine said.

Citing a source in a unit which it said was co-ordinating intelligence services, the French weekly said these services believed Gaddafi was still somewhere in the Libyan capital.

Gaddafi was gone from the safehouse in central Tripoli when agents arrived after a tip-off from a credible source. But, the magazine said, they found evidence he had spent at least one night there — though it did not say how recently that was.

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