BENGHAZI, Libya — Rebel forces began long-threatened assaults Friday on the last strongholds of Moammar Gadhafi loyalists in an offensive that rebel officials said they expected to complete in a matter of days.
Rebels were said to be advancing "street to street" in Bani Walid, 100 miles south of Tripoli, after loyalists fired Russian-made Grad rockets at rebel positions outside the city.
Fighting also was described as heavy near the Red Valley, 35 miles east of Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown, where loyalist forces reportedly were firing rockets at rebel positions and the revolutionaries responding with barrages from anti-aircraft weapons.
"There's no way we can avoid a fight," said Abdul Hafez Ghoga, a spokesman for the National Transitional Council, the rebels' governing body.
Ghoga said rebel forces would focus first on Bani Walid, a city of 70,000 that's home to Libya's largest tribe, the Warfalla, and they expected it to fall this weekend. They'd then turn their attention to Sirte, where Gadhafi's tribe, the Gaddhafiya, dominates. Ghoga said rebel officials hoped that Sirte would fall by late next week.
Rebel officials had hoped to arrange for the peaceful surrender of Bani Walid and Sirte and had negotiated with tribal officials in both locations for the past 10 days.
But as the midnight Friday deadline for the surrenders approached it became clear that no agreement would be reached as loyalists opened fire on rebel positions.
"We've entered the area from the east, north and south," Abdullah Kenshil, a spokesman for the council, told the Al Jazeera English television channel of the rebel advance into Bani Walid. "The deadline is finished. They finished it."
The BBC said four people had been killed at Bani Walid, including three Gadhafi loyalists. There were no reports of casualties from the fighting near Sirte, which is 280 miles east of Tripoli.
It was uncertain whether Gadhafi was at either location or in a third loyalist-held city, Sabha, hundreds of miles away in the country's desert south.
Rebel officials have said that signs point to Gadhafi's being holed up in his home village of Qasr bu Hadi, 10 miles southeast of Sirte. The village has been closed to the outside world for nearly two weeks, and Gadhafi loyalists moved several hundred rebel prisoners to the village several days ago in what council political affairs director Fathi Baja said was akin to taking human shields.
Yet Baja said it also would be out of character for Gadhafi to put himself in a situation from which there might be no exit, though it's far from certain that he has a place to flee.
Interpol, the international police coordination bureau, issued arrest warrants Friday for Gadhafi, his son Saif al Islam and his intelligence chief, Abdullah al Senussi, all of whom have been charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. All of Libya's neighboring countries are signatories to the treaty that established the court and would be obligated under international law to arrest Gadhafi, his son or Senussi were they to cross their borders.
That obligation doesn't extend, however, to Gadhafi supporters who haven't been charged and have fled in recent days to Niger, the landlocked desert nation to Libya's south. Niger has yet to recognize the rebel council as Libya's legitimate government.
The BBC also reported Friday that Ali Kana, a top general who commanded Gadhafi's forces in southern Libya, was among the latest loyalists to enter Niger. At least a dozen people arrived in three vehicles in the town of Agadez, close to the Libya border, the BBC said, and had checked into a hotel that Gadhafi had built there.
Ghoga said he understood that Niger had arrested the 30 or so Gadhafi aides who'd arrived in that country earlier and would hand them over to Libya. "We will get these criminals back," he said. But there was no confirmation of his claim, and no indication from officials in Niger that any of those who'd arrived there had been detained.
The United States demanded early this week that Niger seize the men, as well as the large quantity of cash and gold bullion they reportedly were carrying, and return them to Libya. It wasn't clear whether that had occurred. The U.S. Embassy in Niamey refused to make any comment on or off the record and referred all questions to the State Department, which didn't respond to a call seeking comment.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011