Qaddafi forces' resilience surprises general

The "resilient and fierce" resistance by forces loyal to fugitive Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi has reportedly surprised the general who oversees NATO's air operations over the country.

Meanwhile, an official on Libya's governing council said he believes Qaddafi is hiding in the southwestern desert near the borders with Niger and Algeria but denied allegations that the Tuareg minority ethnic group is protecting the fugitive leader.

The assessment from the NATO official, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Ralph Jodice II, comes as the Qaddafi loyalists have somewhat stymied NATO's air mission, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

NATO's involvement in Libya stems from a United Nations resolution calling for the protection of civilians threatened in the nation's unrest. With the loyalists in the urban Qaddafi stronghold of Sirte largely fighting from buildings, an alliance air assault targeting the buildings risks killing or harming civilians.

"It's really been quite interesting how resilient and fierce they've been," Jodice told the Times Sunday about the loyalists from his command center near Bologna, Italy. "We're all surprised by the tenacity of the pro-Qaddafi forces. At this point, they might not see a way out."

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Moussa al-Kouni, who is a Tuareg representative on the revolution's leadership body, claimed on Monday that Qaddafi had sent his son Khamis to the area to set up a radio station and make preparations for a possible escape route two months before Tripoli fell to revolutionary forces in late August.

Al-Kouni provided no evidence, saying he based his assertion on the fact that the Qaddafi regime had used the area before because it has rough terrain and porous borders that would make detection difficult. He also pointed out that Qaddafi had cultivated close ties with the Niger government and could even be going back and forth across the border.

"As far as I am aware, Qaddafi is in that region ... on the border with Niger," he told reporters in Tripoli, adding that Qaddafi could get safe passage through Niger to Mali, where he allegedly has a house in Timbuktu. Niger has put Qaddafi's son al-Saadi under house arrest.

There has been much speculation about Qaddafi's whereabouts since the erratic leader and two of his sons went underground as revolutionary forces swept into the capital.

Libya's new rulers have vowed Qaddafi will face justice for crimes committed during more than four decades of brutal rule. But more than seven weeks after Tripoli's fall, authorities appear no closer to capturing him and the fugitive former leader continues to try to rally supporters with audio messages from hiding, most recently on Thursday.

The head of the Transitional National Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, told reporters Sunday the governing authority had no confirmed information about Qaddafi's location and he didn't know whether the fugitive leader was inside or outside Libya.

Some military officials have alleged Tuaregs are helping Qaddafi survive and remain hidden in the vast southern desert. The nomadic community, which spans the desert border of Niger, Mali, Libya, Algeria and Chad, has long been among Qaddafi's strongest supporters and many fought for him during the civil war.

Al-Kouni acknowledged that some of Qaddafi's Tuareg recruits may still be helping him but insisted the community as a whole was not. He expressed concern that the allegations were causing harmful divisions between Tuaregs and other Libyans.

Revolutionary forces still battling Qaddafi loyalists have made gains in recent days on two major fronts, his coastal hometown of Sirte and the inland enclave of Bani Walid, but still face fierce resistance.

The transitional leadership, eager to move forward with efforts to hold elections and establish a democracy, has said it will declare Libya liberated after Sirte falls.

Anti-Qaddafi fighters raised their tricolor flag Monday over Sirte's Ouagadougou Convention Center, which had been used by loyalists as a base, but fighting surged elsewhere in the fugitive leader's hometown. Tank, rocket and machine-gun fire echoed through the surrounding streets.

Col. Younis al-Abdally, a commander in Sirte, said his troops have surrounded pro-Qaddafi fighters in a small area along the upscale Dollar Street. He conceded a fierce fight still lies ahead, adding that information indicates one of Qaddafi's sons and a number of top officials of the former regime are holed up in villas there.

Artillery commander Mahmoud Mustafa said Qaddafi's son Moatassim was believed to be hiding in Dollar Street or one of two other areas where fighting still raged, so revolutionary forces were trying to capture pro-Qaddafi fighters alive.

"We believe there are some important figures, including Moatassim, and that is the reason we have faced such strong resistance for weeks," he said.

A team from the International Committee of the Red Cross entered Sirte's Ibn Sina Hospital Monday to evacuate wounded people left behind after three weeks of fighting.

More than 100 patients, including several wounded children and their families, were trapped in the hospital, Dr. Abdallah Etbiga said.

In Bani Walid, the other remaining bastion of Qaddafi loyalists, revolutionary fighters retreated from the town center after facing heavy sniper fire and booby-traps but still held the airport and two villages to the south, said Abdullah Kenshil, who led failed talks for the town's peaceful surrender.

Qaddafi forces also attacked revolutionaries at the town's northern gate on Monday but were repelled, he said, adding four fighters were killed and six wounded in that battle.