BENGHAZI, Libya — The spokesman for Moammar Gaddafi’s collapsing government on Wednesday rejected a rebel ultimatum to surrender or face an all-out military assault.
Libya’s Transitional National Council — the de facto government of the country since the rebels gained control of key areas last week and Gaddafi disappeared from view — has said loyalists have until Saturday to relinquish control over the pockets of the country where they still hold sway.
In response, Gaddafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim dismissed the council as an unlawful group and said Gaddafi’s son Saadi was willing to negotiate and form a transitional government in coordination with the rebels — something opposition leaders have made clear is unacceptable to them.
“No dignified, honorable nation would accept an ultimatum from armed gangs,” Ibrahim said in a phone interview with the Associated Press.
A rebel commander, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, gave a different account of Saadi Gaddafi’s role, saying the son is trying to negotiate the terms of his surrender. Belhaj said Saadi first called him Tuesday, asked whether his safety could be guaranteed and was told he would be treated humanely, AP reported.
Opposition leaders say they are close to finding Gaddafi and their forces are closing in on Sirte, his home town, from the east and west.
In a call to AP headquarters in New York, Ibrahim said Gaddafi was still in Libya and had no plans to leave. He said NATO was launching missile strikes in Sirte, likely because rebels have told them Gaddafi is in the city, his tribal power base. Ibrahim — who said he was speaking from somewhere south of Tripoli, the capital — said missile attacks from warplanes circling over Sirte have killed 1,000 people and left many others injured. The claim could not be independently confirmed, however, and Gaddafi’s regime has seriously exaggerated casualty numbers during the six-month civil war.
“Maybe they have been advised by some of the leaders of the rebels to attack the city with such vigor and power in hope that the leader is there praying with his people,” Ibrahim said.
Fearing a bloody battle for Sirte, refugees streamed out of the city Wednesday, passing rebel checkpoints in vehicles packed with belongings, Reuters news agency reported. Loyalist troops remained dug in around the city of about 100,000 people.
NATO said Wednesday that its planes carried out 38 strike sorties the day before, hitting a Gaddafi command-and-control facility, tanks, “armed vehicles” and other targets in the vicinity of Sirte. It said airstrikes also were carried out Tuesday in the area of Bani Walid, a Gaddafi stronghold 104 miles southeast of Tripoli. NATO said its planes hit an ammunition depot there, as well as surface-to-surface missile launchers and a storage facility for tanks and multiple rocket launchers.
The opposition currently controls Tripoli and much of the rest of the country, but the center of Libya remains firmly in the hands of Gaddafi loyalists, effectively dividing it between east and west.
As rebels try to restore basic services such as water and fuel in the areas they hold, Sirte is seen as the most important pro-Gaddafi holdout. Forces loyal to Gaddafi have reportedly sought refuge in Sirte, 278 miles east of Tripoli along the Mediterranean coast, and in Sabha, a desert town 482 miles south of the capital.
“If we want to unify the whole country and if we want to declare that the war is over, we have to free Sirte,” Mustafa Sagazly, deputy interior minister of the transitional council, said Monday. “Otherwise, we’ll be in a continuous state of war.”