Muammar Gaddafi's loyalists fired at least 10 rockets from inside one of his last strongholds, hours after the ousted Libyan leader urged his fighters to crush opponents he ridiculed as germs and rats.
Former rebels have massed outside the desert town of Bani Walid for days waiting for orders to take the town, but the rocket fire marked an escalation in the standoff, which could reach a climax when a deadline for surrender negotiations runs out this weekend.
The high cost of bringing down Gaddafi's nearly 42-year-rule over the oil-rich nation, meanwhile, came into sharper relief, as the country's interim health minister announced that at least 30,000 people were killed and 50,000 wounded during the six-month civil war.
Though they overran the capital last month, drove Gaddafi into hiding and run a leadership council that is the closest thing to a Libyan government, the fighters cannot claim victory until the remaining handful of loyalist strongholds are under their control and — most importantly — Gaddafi is captured.
Reporters with the forces chasing remaining Gaddafi loyalists heard at least 10 loud explosions along the desert front line at Bani Walid, a dusty town of 100,000 some 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. The barrage followed a close-quarters gunfight in the same area between a patrol of fighters and several loyalist youths in a civilian car. One of the Gaddafi gunmen was killed.
Smoke billowed from where the rockets landed in Wadi Dinar, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) outside Bani Walid. The former rebels said the projectiles fired were Grad rockets.
Bani Walid has emerged as a focus in the fight against pro-Gadhafi holdouts since officials have said a number of prominent regime loyalists, including Gaddafi's son and one-time heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, are believed to be inside.
From hiding hours earlier, Gaddafi denied rumours he had fled Libya, vowed never to leave the land of his ancestors and exhorted followers to keep fighting. The message was broadcast on a pro-Gaddafi satellite TV channel based in Syria.
Gaddafi hasn't been seen in public for months. Finding him would help seal the new rulers' hold on the country and likely trigger the collapse of the remaining regime loyalists.
In Thursday's five-minute audio message, aired on Al-Rai TV, a man who sounded like Gaddafi denounced reports that he had fled to neighbouring Niger and claimed he was still in Libya. He called those who ousted him "a bunch of mercenaries, thugs and traitors."
"We are ready to start the fight in Tripoli and everywhere else, and rise up against them," he said. "All of these germs, rats ... they are not Libyans, ask anyone. They have cooperated with Nato."
Niger officials have said senior members of Gaddafi's regime led by his own security chief crossed from Libya on Tuesday. Niger said the group of 13 people did not include Gadhafi, and US officials have said they have no reason to believe Gaddafi is not in Libya. But reports of the apparent defection of some of his top aides — and rumors that it involved a large number of senior soldiers who left with money and gold — were believed to have undermined morale among Gaddafi loyalists.
Gaddafi tried to counter what he called a propaganda war, telling followers in the message broadcast: "They are trying to demoralize you."
"Gaddafi won't leave the land of his ancestors," he said, referring to himself in the third person, a rhetorical habit.
The authenticity of the recording could not be verified but the voice and style strongly resembled those of Gaddafi, who has used the TV channel in the past.
Libya's interim health minister, Naji Barakat, said Wednesday that at least 30,000 people were killed and 50,000 wounded in the war. The figures, though incomplete, were based on body counts from some areas and estimates from others, Barakat said.
Libya has just over 6 million people, and if the figure provided by Barakat is confirmed, it would be a measure of the high price Libyans paid to oust Gaddafi. It may take several more weeks to get a complete count, Barakat told The Associated Press.
The economic costs have also been high for the oil-exporting nation.
In Tripoli Thursday, the new governor of Libya's central bank told reporters the former regime sold about 20 percent — or 29 tons — of the country's gold reserves to cover salaries during the uprising. Qassim Azzuz also said none of the bank's roughly $115 billion in assets "went missing or were stolen" during the uprising. He said the figures did not include still unknown sums of money accumulated by Gaddafi and his family, which were held outside the local banking sector.
Besides Bani Walid, the former rebels are still battling loyalists in two other Gaddafi strongholds, Gaddafi's Mediterranean hometown of Sirte and Sabha, deep in the southern desert.
Nato warplanes, which have aided the rebels since March under a UN mandate to protect civilians, are continuing to strike.
In London Thursday, Major Gen. Nick Pope, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said British fighter aircraft under Nato authority spotted concentrations of Gadhafi forces in and around Sirte.
"The RAF (Royal Air Force) aircraft mounted a series of precision attacks ... and successfully destroyed four main battle tanks, three armored personnel carriers, a self-propelled gun, two other armored vehicles and an artillery piece," Pope said.
Nato added that its overnight bombing targets included five armored vehicles near Sirte and 18 surface-to-air missile systems near the desert town of Waddan, 300 kilometers (about 180 miles) south of Sirte on the way to Sabha.