The Libyan rebels' assault on the Gadhafi stronghold of Bani Walid got off to a rocky start on Saturday after the deadline for a peaceful resolution expired. Gadhafi loyalists, meanwhile, continued fleeing to Niger.
Rebels have met stiff resistance in Bani Walid
Libyan rebels mobilized for their final assault on towns such as Bani Walid, one of deposed dictator Moammar Gadhafi's last strongholds, after the deadline set for a peaceful resolution expired on Saturday.
The rebels had launched their assault on Bani Walid early on Saturday morning and met stiff resistance from Gadhafi loyalists. Rebel Commanders subsequently halted the assault and pulled back to the outskirts of the town.
Rebel negotiator Abdullah Kenshil told the news agency AFP that the assault was probably halted in anticipation of NATO airstrikes. The Reuters news agency, meanwhile, has reported several airstrikes in the town.
"We launched this morning the widespread assault we had spoken about in order to enter and capture Bani Walid after receiving reinforcements from other areas," Kenshil said.
Moammar Gadhafi has denied rumors that he fled Libya
"The rebels now control positions in the north of the town and are combing through the area where snipers are positioned on rooftops," he continued.
Officials with the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), now widely recognized as Libya's legitimate government, estimate that around 1,000 fighters are defending the town.
The Saturday assaults are coming after the expiration of a deadline set by the NTC for Gadhafi loyalists to surrender peacefully.
"Last night the deadline passed," NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil told local leaders in Misrata as he made his way toward the capital for the first time since it fell on August 23.
"We have extended it more than once, trying to clear the way for a peaceful resolution," he said. "Now the situation is in the hands of our revolutionary fighters," he added, giving commanders authority to attack Bani Walid and other pro-Gadhafi enclaves such as Sirte and Sabha.
He said he thought the battles for Bani Walid and Sirte could take up to a week to win, depending on the levels of resistance, and urged Gadhafi loyalists to allow his fighters peaceful entry into their strongholds.
Regime on the run
More officials loyal to Moammar Gadhafi have fled across Libya's southern border to the nation of Niger.
That country's Justice Minister Amadou Morou confirmed on Friday that Gadhafi's air force chief of staff and his pilot as well as commanders of two Libyan military regions had entered Niger on Thursday night.
Morou went on to say that six civilians had also arrived in Niger, but declined to identify who they were.
Although Gadhafi's whereabouts remain unknown, the ex-dictator denied rumors that he has fled Libya during an address broadcast on a television channel in Syria.
The president of the west African nation Guinea Bissau has said Gadhafi is welcome with "open arms" in his country. Gadhafi invested heavily in hotels, agriculture and cashew nuts in the nation.
"If Gadhafi asks to come to Guinea Bissau we will welcome him with open arms and we will ensure his security," President Carlos Gomes Junior told Radio Diffusion Portuguese (RPD).
Guinea Bissau has not joined the International Criminal Court, which is currently seeking Gadhafi's arrest.
Niger, on the other hand, is a member of the court and has promised to uphold its international obligations should Gadhafi enter its territory.
Author: Spencer Kimball (AP, AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Kyle James