Libyan rebels advance on Qaddafi's hometown

A crossed out caricature of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi reading "No Entry" is seen at a checkpoint in Tripoli, Libya, Sept. 2, 2011. AP Photo

TRIPOLI, Libya - Rebel forces are advancing toward Muammar Qaddafi's hometown despite the extension of a deadline for the town's surrender, rebel officials said Friday, as a U.N. official warned that Libya faces critical but short-term shortages of drinking water, food and other supplies.

While fighting has subsided in much of Libya, including the capital, Tripoli, the six-month civil war between rebels and Qaddafi's forces disrupted supply lines and damaged infrastructure across the country, leaving many people in need of help.

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In just the past few days, more than a half-dozen U.N. agencies have returned to Tripoli, said the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Libya, Panos Moumtzis. The U.N. has brought in 11 million bottles of water and will bring in 600 tons of food and $140 million worth of medicine. But he also said the U.N. help is expected to be temporary.

"This country has a lot of resources and we view the humanitarian needs as short-term," he said of the oil-rich nation of 6 million people. "I don't foresee the humanitarian program going beyond the end of the year, maximum."

While rebel forces have seized most of the country, they have yet to capture Qaddafi or members of his family. Meanwhile, their forces have been advancing on the few remaining loyalist bastions, including the former dictator's hometown of Sirte.

Rebel council spokesman Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga said that despite the extension of a surrender deadline — the rebels had originally demanded that Sirte surrender by Saturday, but later gave the loyalists until Sept. 10 — rebel forces have not stopped advancing.

Rebel brigades have pushed to the town of Wadi Hawarah, around 30 miles from Sirte, he said.

"The rebels at the front line are very eager to move without delay. They live in harsh conditions there in the middle of the desert, and in hot weather," he said, adding the rebels preferred a surrender to a bloody attack. "Maybe tomorrow, or the day after, the people of Sirte will raise the independence flag and we can enter peacefully without fighting."

"One week is not a big deal," he said, adding that talks were continuing with tribal elders inside Sirte.

Another rebel commander said the loyalist forces inside Sirte were divided, with one camp lead by Qaddafi's son Muatassim and the other by tribal elders.

"It was the tribal leaders of Sirte who asked for an extension until they could manage to resolve the situation peacefully," said Fadl-Allah Haroun.

"The Qaddafi people will have to flee in the end — to Niger or anywhere else — because there is no other option," he said.

In a fiery broadcast from hiding, Qaddafi warned late Thursday that loyal tribes in his main strongholds were armed and preparing for battle — a show of defiance hours after rebels extended the surrender deadline.

The rebels have been hunting for Qaddafi since he was forced into hiding after they swept into Tripoli on Aug. 20 and gained control of most of the capital in days of fierce fighting.

"We won't surrender again; we are not women. We will keep fighting," Qaddafi said in the audio statement broadcast by Syrian-based Al-Rai TV. His voice was recognizable, and Al-Rai has previously broadcast statements by Qaddafi and his sons.

Qaddafi said the tribes in Sirte and the loyalist stronghold of Bani Walid are armed and "there is no way they will submit."

In a second late-night audio, also broadcast on the Syrian channel, Qaddafi called for a long insurgency. "We will fight them everywhere," he said. "We will burn the ground under their feet."

He said NATO was trying to occupy Libya and steal its oil.

"Get ready to fight the occupation. ... Get ready for a long war, imposed on us," Qaddafi added. "Get ready for the guerrilla war."

He called Sirte "the capital of the resistance."

The rebels dismiss the threats as empty rhetoric. They believe Qaddafi may be in one of their three key targets: Sirte, Bani Walid, which lies 90 miles southeast of Tripoli, or the southern city of Sabha.

Backed by NATO airstrikes, the rebels are pushing toward those three targets.

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