Former Libya Rebels Attack Bani Walid, Sirte on Day Before Surrender Deadline

Interpol issues arrest warrants for Gadhafi, his son Saif al-Islam and chief of intelligence agency.

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Former Libyan rebels began attacking the loyalist holdouts of Bani Walid and Sirte on Friday night, a day before their own deadline for the surrender of those cities took effect.

"It's full-steam ahead right now," said Abdulrahman Busin, a spokesman for the military.

A rebel fighter signs V for victory at a checkpoint between Tarhouna and Bani Walid, Libya, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011. Credit: AP

The former rebels reportedly were inside Bani Walid but fighting continued, Busin said. The attack on Sirte, a city on the Mediterranean coast, had just begun and the former rebels were still on the outskirts.

Busin said the Bani Walid attack took place early because loyalist forces inside the small city had opened fire on former-rebel positions outside. As for the attack on Sirte, he said, "They may have pushed forward a few hours early simply because it was a strategic advantage."

Bani Walid, a city about 100 miles southeast of Tripoli, and Sirte, which lies on the main coastal highway 200 miles east of the capital, are two of only four communities still under the control of forces loyal to Muammar Gadhafi.

Bani Walid is important because it is the home of the country's largest tribe, the Warfallah, which had previously been a big supporter of Gadhafi's, and because it is believed that some of his former officials may have taken refuge there.

Sirte, an oil port, is strategically important because loyalist forces holding it have effectively been able to cut the country in two between east and west.

The fighting came after Interpol issued arrest warrants for Gadhafi and two others Friday, and after reports came from Niger of a new convoy of high-ranking Libyan officials arriving across the desert.

In Lyon, France, Interpol said in a statement that it had issued so-called red notices calling for the arrests of Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam Gadhafi and Abdullah al-Senussi, chief of the former leader's intelligence agency.

There was no suggestion that Gadhafi or the two other wanted men were known to be among those who arrived in the latest convoy to Niger. The country has been under intense international pressure to turn over any former officials of the Gadhafi government who arrive there.

On Friday, an official in Niger said that the government would respect the Interpol notices and hand over the fugitives should they cross the border, Reuters reported.

Despite an international manhunt, the whereabouts of Libya's top officials have been uncertain since rebels took the capital, Tripoli, last month. Since then, Gadhafi and his son have taunted the transitional government in audio messages and urged their loyalists to continue fighting.

The Interpol notices, which were requested by the International Criminal Court at The Hague based on allegations of war crimes committed by the three men, require any of Interpol's 188 member nations to arrest the suspects and turn them over to the court.

Among the member nations is Niger, which borders Libya on the south and has received a number of convoys of loyalist officials fleeing overland. So far, no high-ranking figures in the former government have been confirmed to be accompanying them.

On Friday, 14 Gadhafi loyalist officials arrived in the northern Niger city of Agadez, including Gen. Ali Kana, who is said to be a Tuareg tribesman in charge of Gadhafi's southern troops, according to a Reuters report. Tuareg tribesmen, who live on both sides of the Libya-Niger border in the Sahara, have been major supporters of the Gadhafi government.

The group also included Gen. Ali Sharif al-Rifi, commander of the Libyan air force, and two other top officials, who were said to be staying at the Etoile du Tenere hotel in Agadez, according to the news agency. The hotel is said to be owned by Gadhafi.

Niger's justice minister, Marou Amadou, confirmed that the two generals were in Agadez and were "being well guarded" but were not "in a building belonging to the state."

Gadhafi "is a fugitive whose country of nationality and the International Criminal Court want arrested and held accountable for the serious criminal charges that have been brought against him," Interpol's secretary-general, Ronald K. Noble, said in a written statement. "Interpol will cooperate with and assist the ICC and Libyan authorities represented by the interim Transitional National Council of Libya" to apprehend him. Arresting Gadhafi "is a matter of time," the Interpol statement said, quoting the prosecutor of the International
Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. Moreno-Ocampo had requested the Interpol action Thursday.

Late last month, two of Gadhafi's sons and his second wife fled to Algeria, which granted them asylum on humanitarian grounds, leading to vigorous criticism from Libyan transitional leaders. Algeria is also one of Interpol's member countries, as are all of Libya's neighbors.

Residents of Tripoli planned to converge on Martyrs' Square on Friday night to protest against people who had supported Gadhafi until the very end and then switched sides. Protesters who gathered in the late afternoon said that they did not want such people to retain or gain positions in government.

"Where, where is he?" chanted hundreds of doctors and nurses in hospital scrubs and the colors of the Libyan flag, taunting Gadhafi as they marched toward the square.

The doctors carried signs with pictures of other doctors and medical workers killed during the rebellion.

They also objected to the National Transitional Council's minister of health, Naji Barakat. They that said he was a holdover from Gadhafi's time and that he was still acting as authoritarian as before.

Barakat could not be reached for comment, but transitional council officials have said that many of Gadhafi's officials had been retained until a new government had been formed to keep essential services functioning.

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