Libyan forces converged on Muammar Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte on Monday, hoping to seal their revolution by capturing the last bastions of a fallen but perhaps still dangerous strongman.
Gaddafi's whereabouts have been unknown since Tripoli fell to his foes and his 42-year-old rule collapsed a week ago.
The leader of Libya's ruling council asked NATO to pursue its five-month-old air campaign, which has given essential firepower to ragtag rebels who rose against Gaddafi in February.
"I call for continued protection from NATO and its allies from this tyrant," Mustafa Abdel Jalil said in Qatar, a tiny but wealthy Gulf Arab country that has backed the revolt. "He is still a threat, not just for Libyans but for the entire world."
Abdel Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), was speaking at a meeting of defense ministers from countries that have supported the anti-Gaddafi movement.
A NATO commander pledged to pursue the alliance's mission, at least until its internal mandate expires on September 27.
"We believe the Gaddafi regime is near collapse, and we're committed to seeing the operation through to its conclusion," U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear, who heads NATO's Joint Operations Command, told a news conference in the Qatari capital, Doha.
"Pockets of pro-Gaddafi forces are being reduced day by day. The regime no longer has the capacity to mount a decisive operation," he said, adding that NATO air raids had destroyed 5,000 military targets in Libya.NATO warplanes struck at Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast, for a third day on Sunday, a NATO spokesman said in Brussels.
Gaddafi was born near Sirte, 450 km (280 miles) east of Tripoli, in 1942. After seizing power in 1969 he built it up from a sleepy fishing village into a city of 100,000 people which he often used for state occasions.TRIBAL SUPPORT
He still retains tribal support in Sirte. Whether or not he plans to make a last stand there, the city's capture would be a strategic and symbolic prize for Libya's new rulers as they strengthen their grip on the vast North African country.The new leadership says there are also areas in the southern desert which its forces are still trying to bring under control.
The NTC has offered a $1.3 million reward and amnesty from prosecution for anyone who kills or captures Gaddafi.Its forces have advanced toward Sirte from east and west, even as negotiations continue for its surrender.
Jamal Tunally, a commander in Misrata, to the west, told Reuters: "The front line is 30 km from Sirte. We think the Sirte situation will be resolved peacefully, God willing.""Now we just need to find Gaddafi. I think he is still hiding beneath Bab al-Aziziya like a rat," he said, referring to Gaddafi's Tripoli compound, which was overrun last Tuesday.
On the coastal highway east of Tripoli, transporters carried Soviet-designed T-55 tanks toward Sirte. Fighters said they had seized the tanks from an abandoned base in Zlitan.
Libyan forces advancing from the east pushed 7 km past the village of Bin Jawad and secured the Nawfaliya junction, a spokesman said. "We're going slowly," Mohammad Zawawi added.
"We want to give more time for negotiations, to give a chance for those people trying to persuade the people inside Sirte to surrender and open their city."Mindful of preserving their image to the world and stung by accounts that captured Gaddafi loyalists have been found dead with their hands tied behind their backs, NTC leaders sent a text message urging followers not to abuse prisoners.
"Remember when you arrest any follower of Gaddafi that he is like you, that he has dignity like you, that his dignity is your own dignity, and that it is enough humiliation for him that he is already a prisoner," it said.
TRAIL OF CORPSES
NTC military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Bani said the fate of 40,000 people who had been detained by Gaddafi forces was unknown, suggesting that some might still be in underground bunkers in Tripoli that had yet to be found.
The Khamis Brigade, a military unit commanded by and named after one of Gaddafi's sons, appears to have killed dozens of detainees in a warehouse in a neighborhood adjoining the Yarmouk military base south of Tripoli last week, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said.
Three days later the warehouse, used as a makeshift prison, was set on fire but the cause was unknown. HRW said it had seen the charred skeletal remains of about 45 smoldering bodies on Saturday. At least two more corpses lay outside unburned.
"Sadly this is not the first gruesome report of what appears to be the summary execution of detainees in the final days of the Gaddafi government's control of Tripoli," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW Middle East and North Africa director.
HRW quoted a survivor as saying that guards at the warehouse read out 153 names of detainees in the roll call on the day of the killings. He estimated that 20 escaped from the attack and around 125 of the 153 detainees were civilians.More...