Libyan fighters handed out free petrol to help hundreds of civilians flee a desert town held by Muammar Qaddafi’s forces ahead of an onslaught aimed at capturing one of the ousted ruler’s last bastions, as the National Transitional Council demanded to represent the country at the United Nations.
Complaining of hardship and intimidation, residents of Bani Walid headed to nearby towns or started the 180 km (112-mile) journey north towards Tripoli on Tuesday in cars packed with children and possessions.
Forces of the new ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) that overran Tripoli on Aug. 23 have met unexpectedly stout resistance in five days of fighting for Bani Walid, a sun-baked town set in rocky hills and valleys, according to Reuters.
Along with Qaddafi’s hometown Sirte on the Mediterranean coast and Sabha in the southern desert, Bani Walid is one of the last strongholds of old regime fighters.
Their dogged resistance has complicated NTC efforts to normalize life in the oil-rich North African state and the United Nations has voiced fears about the plight of civilians marooned inside besieged pro-Qaddafi towns, particularly Sirte.
Qaddafi’s whereabouts are unknown. NTC officials have said he could be hiding in one of the outposts like Bani Walid, helping to rally a last stand against NATO-backed forces.
Residents escaping Bani Walid on Monday and Tuesday reported days of intense street-to-street fighting. They began to slip out after Qaddafi forces abandoned some checkpoints on the outskirts.
“It’s too dangerous to go outside. Militia men are hiding around the city and (pro-Qaddafi) green flags are everywhere,” 25-year-old resident Abdulbaset Mohammed said, driving towards Tripoli.
NTC field commanders said people in Bani Walid had been told via broadcast radio messages they had two days to leave town before it came under full-blown attack.
“I think only 10 percent of the people are Qaddafi supporters. They are fanatics. And the rest are waiting to be liberated. We have given them two more days to leave the city,” NTC fighter Abumuslim Abdu told Reuters.
The country’s new rulers have hesitated to employ heavy-handed tactics to seize Bani Walid, which is home to the Warfalla tribe, Libya’s largest.
Libya’s interim rulers have said that, along with taking control of pro-Qaddafi enclaves, capturing or killing the fugitive leader is a priority and only then could Libya be declared “liberated.”
The U.S. State Department said one of his sons, Saadi Qaddafi, who arrived in neighboring Niger on Sunday on one of four convoys of senior Qaddafi loyalists to have crossed the southern Sahara desert frontier, was being held there.
Niger said on Monday it was keeping Saadi Qaddafi under surveillance but had not detained him.
The new president of the U.N. General Assembly, meanwhile, said Libya’s new leaders sent a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon saying the National Transitional Council wants to represent the country at the United Nations, according to The Associated Press.
Libya’s U.N. seat is still held by Qaddafi’s government, which has been effectively ousted from power by the former rebels.
Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser, who took over the presidency Tuesday at the start of the assembly’s 66th session, told reporters the new leaders asked the U.N. chief to forward the letter to the General Assembly.
Al-Nasser said the assembly’s newly formed credentials committee will make a recommendation to the 193-member world body.
In Tripoli, officials trying to restore security said they needed to integrate the fighters who toppled Qaddafi into the police force to ensure the revolution’s legitimacy.
Osama Abu Ras, a member of the Supreme Security Committee for Tripoli, told Reuters that Qaddafi’s forces remained capable of firing missiles and the capital may be a potential target for such attacks.
“We have a very strong (military) front now in our favor but there is a threat of some missiles, including Grad missiles, and rockets. This could be a real threat,” he said.
While Qaddafi and his son Seif al-Islam, wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), have remained elusive, three Qaddafi officials were reported to be in NTC custody.
Abdel Hafid Zlitni, a former Central Bank governor and finance minister, was captured in Zawiyah, 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, NTC sources said on Tuesday.
They also said Mohammed Zwei, parliament speaker and former ambassador to Britain had been captured in the past week. Senior military officer Mustapha Kharroubi was also now under the NTC’s watch, witnesses said.
Kharroubi is a veteran Qaddafi official and one of the few remaining officers who participated in Qaddafi’s 1969 coup. It is believed he handed himself over to NTC officials late last month but this could not immediately be confirmed.
Two of Qaddafi’s sons and his only biological daughter have made their way to Algeria. One son is reported to have died in the war and three others, including Seif, are still on the run.