Rebels target Gaddafi's last stronghold after nearing Tripoli victory

Kim Sengupta reports on the opposition's plan to capture Sirte

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Rebel units, which had been taking part in the battle for Tripoli, are now preparing to be sent to join the offensive on Sirte in an attempt to capture Muammar Gaddafi's birthplace, the last major stronghold of the regime.

One of the reasons behind sending the fighters from the capital, according to opposition military sources, is to ensure that eastern forces from Benghazi do not come too far into the western part of the country. It is claimed, meanwhile, that talks being held with tribal leaders inside the Gaddafi stronghold are progressing and may lead to a peaceful handover of the city.

A commander of the revolutionary forces stated that the largest clan in the area, the Farjan, and their allies, the Hamanlah, have become receptive to offers of peace talks. Some members of the Rasoun and the Olad-Wafi, two other families who have been traditionally loyal to Colonel Gaddafi and have raised forces for him during the conflict are also said to be at the point of accepting that the war is now lost despite their best efforts, and there is no dishonour in agreeing to a ceasefire.

The opposition's final plans for Sirte, which have been drawn up with the help of Western advisers, envisage keeping a minimal number of revolutionary fighters inside the city once hostile forces have been disarmed. Strenuous attempts will be undertaken to prevent tribal clashes. "That is one of the reasons we don't think there is any need for the eastern forces to come too far forward or stay on in the area for too long," said Ahmed al-Magri, a member of the Tripoli Military Council, established after revolutionary forces took over the Libyan capital.

Failure, so far, to hunt down Gaddafi in Tripoli has led to speculation that he may have sought refuge in Sirte. "I really, really hope that he is not there," wished another rebel officer, Mustafa Abdulrahman. "Some of the people there may think that would make it their duty to fight to the last – after all, he is a son of Sirte. We don't want him to become a martyr there. It is better he is arrested somewhere else."

Opposition forces in the east are reported to have taken Bin Jawad at the weekend. The rebel advance on Sirte and, after that, Tripoli, following the February revolution effectively ended at the town after an ambush in which more than 100 al-Shabaab volunteer fighters were killed in the early weeks of the conflict. The rebels complained at the time that some residents of the town had fought against them and, during a brief foray back into the town, arrested and took away a number of collaborators.

However, with their path cleared by intensive Nato air strikes and the fall of the capital, the revolutionaries now maintain it is only a matter of time before Sirte falls. "They can no longer get directions from Tripoli, or supplies," said Mr Magri. "Everywhere else has fallen; they know they are isolated and we have won." With victory seemingly in their grasp, the opposition administration, the Transitional National Council, rejected an offer from Gaddafi yesterday to " transfer his power" to a "transitional government".

Moussa Ibrahim, the spokesman for the regime, announced that the dictator's son, Saadi, would lead the talks. Saadi Gaddafi, in an email to the media, recently stated: "I will try and save my city and its two million people. Otherwise Tripoli will be lost forever, like Somalia. Soon it will be a sea of blood."

Mahmoud Shammam, the Information Minister in the rebels' transitional council, categorically rejected the offer. "I would like to state very clearly: we don't recognise them. We are looking at them as criminals. We are going to arrest them very soon," he said. "Talking about negotiations is a daydream for what remains of the dictatorship."

More evidence of atrocities committed during the last days of fighting in Tripoli emerged over the weekend with around 260 dead bodies, some of them summarily executed, found in various parts of the city. Relations of disappeared inmates at Abu Salim prison continued to turn up in the forlorn hope of finding out what had happened to them. Around 4,000 inmates were freed after the rebels took over the district, after fierce fighting, last week.

Karim bin Yusouf, whose brother, Jawad, has not been seen since he was arrested in March, was squatting on the floor, trying to find clues among piles of paperwork strewn in an office. "I just thought there may be something there, but I do not even know where to start. We are all hoping that he was among those who got away. But he has not called yet, so we pray that Allah protected him."