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Middle East

Gaddafi son 'offers to surrender'

Muammar Gaddafi's son Saadi is trying to negotiate the terms of his own surrender, the rebel commander in Tripoli told The Associated Press today in what would be a major blow to the Libyan leader's crumbling regime.

The commander, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, said Saadi first called him yesterday and asked whether his safety could be guaranteed. "We told him 'Don't fear for your life. We will guarantee your rights as a human being, and will deal with you humanely,' said Belhaj, confirming a report on Al-Jazeera television. Belhaj added that Saadi would be turned over to Libyan legal authorities after his surrender.

If the offer is confirmed — the rebels have previously claimed to have captured Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, who later turned up free — the surrender would give the rebels a significant boost as they try to consolidate their hold over the country with the longtime dictator and several sons and aides still at large.

Opposition fighters have been pressing toward Gaddafi's key remaining stronghold, his hometown of Sirte, and loyalists now only control a handful of areas, including Bani Walid to the west.

Belhaj said Saadi told him he had not killed anyone, and that "he was not against the people."

"I told him 'This is good. What is important for us is not to shed Libyan blood. For the members of the regime to surrender is the best way to do this,"' said Belhaj.

The commander said Saadi had called back this morning, but that he had missed the call. He said he knows Saadi's whereabouts, but prefers to negotiate a surrender. He gave no further details.

Belhaj's comments came hours after Gaddafi's chief spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, called the AP headquarters in New York, reiterating the senior Gaddafi's offer to send Saadi to negotiate with the rebels and form a transitional government. The rebels have previously rejected such offers.

Ibrahim also rejected a rebel ultimatum for loyalists in Sirte to surrender by Saturday or face an attack.

"No dignified honourable nation would accept an ultimatum from armed gangs," he said.

There has been speculation that Gaddafi is seeking refuge in Sirte or one of the other remaining regime strongholds, among them Bani Walid or the southern town of Sabha. Top rebel officials say they have "a good idea" where Gaddafi is hiding, but haven't given any details.

Belhaj said the rebels have set up an operations room to collect any information about the elder Gaddafi's whereabouts, gathering tips from rebels and captured regime fighters.

He said most of the information indicated Gaddafi was somewhere outside Tripoli, but he refused to give any further details, saying the search for the former dictator was "of utmost importance."

Gaddafi's wife, Safiya, sons Mohammed and Hannibal and daughter Aisha fled to Algeria on Monday. Rebel authorities have called on Algeria to send them back, saying they want Gaddafi and his family to be tried in Libya.

But international human rights activists are urging the rebels to turn the dictator over to the International Criminal Court for trial. Leading the calls is the court's Argentine prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who has charged Gaddafi and his son Saif and the regime's intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Sanoussi, with unleashing a campaign of murder and torture since February to try to crush anti-government protests.

Human Rights Watch also urged diplomats meeting Libyan rebels in Paris tomorrow to push for Gaddafi's surrender to The Hague-based international court if he is captured.

In Tripoli, meanwhile, Libyans wept over the graves of those killed in their six-month war against Gaddafi, then celebrated their newfound freedom with morning prayers and joyous chants in the main square — bittersweet rituals marking the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.

Men in their holiday finest — white robes and gold-striped vests — knelt in neat prayer rows in Martyrs' Square, the plaza formerly known as Green Square, where Gaddafi supporters massed nightly during the uprising.

The prayer leader urged the crowd not to seek retribution against Gaddafi loyalists. "No to revenge, yes to the law that rules between us and those who killed our brothers," he said. "Let there be forgiveness and mercy among us."

Women in black robes ululated, rebel fighters fired guns in the air and people burst into spontaneous chants of "Hold your head high, Libya is free!"

In one corner, five rebel fighters formed a reception line, like at a wedding, and civilians walked up to them, shaking their hands in gratitude. In another area of the square, people crowded around a thick metal pole decorated with political cartoons, one depicting Gaddafi as a pig and another as a monster on a psychiatrist's couch.

At Tripoli's Bin-Shir cemetery, dozens of concrete graves had been poured for those killed in the uprising against Gaddafi, particularly the bloody week of battles for control of Tripoli that began on 20 August.

Many of the cement grave covers were unmarked, while a few had names scribbled on them. One of those buried, Mustafa Usta, was killed by sniper fire in his neighbourhood of Souk al-Jumma last week, said his brother, Adnan, 61.

Adnan Usta, a civil servant in the Libyan foreign ministry, said he only learned of his brother's death five days after he was shot, and his brother was buried before the family was informed. Despite his pain, Usta said he was looking toward the future.

"We are free now," he said.