Libya conflict 'nearing conclusion', says Liam Fox

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The conflict in Libya appeared today to be drawing to a conclusion as government forces closed in on the last remaining major stronghold of fighters loyal to ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox said the fall of Sirte - Gaddafi's home town - was "very close" and may bring the fighting to an end more than six months after British forces began air strikes to protect civilians.

While the Libyan capital Tripoli fell in August, loyalists to the former regime have continued to hold out in Sirte against the forces of the West-backed National Transitional Council (NTC).

"We are getting very close to the fall of Sirte, which I think may bring the Libyan conflict to a close," Dr Fox said after a meeting of the National Security Council.

Foreign Secretary William Hague stressed later in the Commons, however, that not all Libyans were yet safe from attack and UK forces would remain as long as needed.

He told MPs the NTC had "consolidated its hold on the vast majority of Libya's territory".

"The remaining Gaddafi supporters are concentrated in Bani Walid and in Sirte, where there has been intense fighting," Mr Hague said.

"The NTC has said that it aims to declare the liberation of Libya once Sirte has fallen, to move swiftly to form a transitional government within 30 days and to hold elections for a constitutional assembly within the following eight months."

He added: "Last week, Nato agreed that the positive trend in Libya is irreversible but that not all Libya's population is yet safe from attack.

"We will continue operations to enforce UNSCR 1973 for as long as is necessary at the request of the NTC."

British forces have flown 3,000 sorties, damaging or destroying 1,000 Gaddafi regime targets, since March, he added.

Amid reports of human rights abuses, Downing Street said that Britain's special representative in Tripoli was to reiterate to the NTC that "they need to deliver on their commitment to hold all people who commit human rights abuses to account".

Human rights group Amnesty International has published a report detailing beatings and ill-treatment of captured Gaddafi soldiers, suspected loyalists and alleged mercenaries in western Libya.

Amnesty called on the new authorities in Libya to "stamp out arbitrary detention and widespread abuse of detainees".

The report found that armed militia have arrested and detained as many as 2,500 people since late August in Tripoli and al-Zawiya.

Amnesty researchers visited 11 detention facilities and interviewed around 300 prisoners, many of whom said they had effectively been abducted from their homes without any kind of arrest warrant.

The researchers found what Amnesty said was "clear evidence of torture in order to extract confessions or as a punishment", including hearing the sound of whipping and screams from a cell.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa deputy director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said: "These detainees have in most cases been arrested without a warrant, beaten - and sometimes worse - on arrest and arrival in detention. They are vulnerable to abuse by armed militias who often act on their own initiative.

"The NTC has to act urgently to translate their public commitments into action before such abuses become entrenched and stain the new Libya's human rights record."