Gaddafi's family escapes as battle for Sirte hots up

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Muammar Gaddafi's wife and three of his children fled Libya last night as thousands of rebels massed on the outskirts of the former dictator's home town in preparation for an assault on the regime's final major stronghold.

The Algerian authorities said yesterday that Colonel Gaddafi's wife Safia, sons Mohammed and Hannibal and his daughter Aisha had crossed their border in a sign of the disintegration of the upper echelons of the 42-year dictatorship.

The whereabouts of Colonel Gaddafi himself remained unknown last night, along with his surviving sons who have led the rearguard action against the rebellion. There were suggestions he was holed up in Sirte, preparing for a desperate, final battle. News of the flight of Gaddafi's family is the first concrete information of his coterie since the rebels took the Libyan capital a week ago. The failure to find Gaddafi has cast uncertainty over their success.

The Egyptian news agency Mena reported that six armoured Mercedes cars carrying Colonel Gaddafi's sons had crossed the border to neighbouring Algeria over the weekend, but Algeria had initially denied the reports.

However, the foreign ministry has now confirmed the reports to the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, and the head of the Transitional National Council (TNC), according to Algerian media. If the reports are true the TNC will "demand that Algerian authorities hand them over to Libya to be tried before Libyan courts", said Ahmed Jibril, an aide to TNC head Mustafa Abdul-Jalil.

One of the sons, Mohammed, handed himself in last week but in an embarrassing episode for the rebel leadership, managed to escape. He and Hannibal, who embarrassed his father after hitting the headlines for his luxurious lifestyle and acts of violence, were not central figures in the regime. Colonel Gaddafi's son, and one-time heir apparent Saif al-Islam, who also escaped from rebel custody, and Khamis, the head of an elite paramilitary group, have had a much greater role in the regime, and last night remained at large. Rebels claimed yesterday that Khamis had been killed, but there had been similiar previous reports of his demise.

Sirte, 280 miles east of the capital Tripoli, is seen as the last major stronghold of the Libyan regime. About 4,000 fighters gathered on the western front with Sirte, about 110 miles outside the city, according to rebel commanders. Opposition forces also gathered from the east in an attempt to wrest the strategic city from regime hands.