Bani Walid just might be Qaddafi's final stand

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Cut off from the outside world and fearful of attack by former rebels bent on revenge, people in the town of Bani Walid may well be playing host to Muammar Qaddafi, but they might also be ready to negotiate with Libya’s new rulers.

A Libyan from the desert town who is well known to Reuters journalists said on Friday that he had been in sporadic contact this week with people in Bani Walid, where commanders for the interim government have focused their hunt for Qaddafi.

“I know that two months ago most of the family, the younger children, were staying in Bani Walid,” said the source, who spoke on condition he was not identified for fear of endangering himself or those close to him.

He said he could not be sure but tended to agree with officials from the National Transitional Council who have said they believe Qaddafi is with his most politically prominent son, Seif al-Islam, and are planning a fight-back from a refuge in Bani Walid, about 150 km (100 miles) southeast of Tripoli.

“I don’t know if Seif or the father are there,” the man said. “It is very likely.”

Bani Walid, along with Sirte on the Mediterranean coast and Sabha deep in the Sahara desert, are the main remaining pockets not in the control of NTC forces, which drove Gaddafi from his Tripoli headquarters early last week. Qaddafi’s wife and three of his children fled into southern Algeria on Monday.

The source said that tribal leaders in Bani Walid held a meeting on Thursday at which they agreed they would allow NTC forces into the area only if they were made up of fighters with family ties to the town. They planned to tell the NTC this.

The involvement of many Bani Walid men on the Qaddafi side during the siege of the coastal city of Misrata this year has created bad blood, and local people in the desert are now fearful of reprisals by the victorious Misrata protesters.

The source said people in Bani Walid had told him they were without electricity and water. He also said a NATO air strike had hit the town in the past few days. “The raid killed an entire family,” he added. “It’s a family that I know personally.”

He did not estimate how many pro-Qaddafi fighters were in the area. But he described most of them as armed volunteers who were ready battle any forces that tried to enter the town without agreeing to the condition about their origins.

Some army officers loyal to Qaddafi remained in Bani Walid, he said, but there was no longer any formal military hierarchy that local residents could ascertain.