Captured fighters include two Britons, claim Gaddafi loyalists

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Muammar Gaddafi's fugitive regime says it has captured 17 foreign mercenaries outside the besieged loyalist redoubt of Bani Walid, 100 miles south-east of Tripoli.

"A group was captured in Bani Walid consisting of 17 mercenaries. They are technical experts and they include consultative officers," said the spokesman Moussa Ibrahim on the Syrian-based Arrai television network. "Most of them are French, one of them is from an Asian country that has not been identified, two English people and one Qatari."

In recent days, Arrai has broadcast several messages from the deposed dictator. The whereabouts of Colonel Gaddafi are currently unknown, but Mr Ibrahim has repeatedly said that the ousted leader is within the country, directing resistance to the rebels.

France denied the claims yesterday, while the British Foreign Ministry said it had no information. Qatari officials were unavailable for immediate comment. Nato says it has no troops on the ground in Libya, but special forces have reportedly been used in Libya and some Gulf States, in particular Qatar, have sent trainers and arms.

The news comes as the rebel army continues its battle to subdue the lingering resistance within the loyalist strongholds of Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha. Outside Sirte, fighters intrucks mounted with heavy machine-guns whipped up and down the highway. After three days of heavy battles, rebel forces now hold the airport and say they have reached the city's central roundabout but pulled back after encountering heavy sniper fire. They also claim to have taken control of the airport and central fort in Sabha.

Fighters in Sirte said 7,000 men were gathered around the loyalist stronghold and that they hope to connect with troops advancing from the east shortly. "Grads [missiles] are keeping the eastern forces back. Tomorrow, Insha'allah [God willing], we will meet," said Ibrahim Sharif Ibrahim, 24, a fighter from Derna.

However, as at other times in Libya's seven month-long uprising, the rebels are struggling to consolidate their gains. "We can't stay there at night because we don't know the streets," said Wajdi Tabit, a fighter from Misrata, at a base 20 miles outside the city. "Most of Gaddafi's forces there are from Sirte so they know the streets."

As the day wore on with little progress, a group of commanders crouched on the ground, sketching out their positions in their sand as they debated their strategy. "We're not confident enough in ourselves," conceded one, known as Sarrab. "They're still finding their way around and building trust." He said that fighters from Misrata had lost more than 100 men in the past three days.

Supplies are running low as the rebel army has cut off the highways leading out of the city. Fighters at the frontline were distributing bottles of water and cartons of juice but residents from the city said life within was dire. "There is no power, no electricity, no hot water, no refrigeration," said Faraj Mohammed, 38, an oilfield worker, who said the situation had declined dramatically in the past 20 days. "No vegetables, no bread, no juice.If you go into the city, you can't see anybody."

On Sunday plumes of smoke rose from the centre of the besieged city as Nato aircraft pounded targets within.

As the latest round of political wrangling among the rebels' interim government, the National Transitional Council, continued, Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril postponed the announcement of a promised new Cabinet. "We have agreed on a number of portfolios. We still have more to be discussed," he told a news conference.