TRIPOLI, Libya — Two men claiming to be Moammar Gadhafi’s sons made conflicting appeals from hiding Wednesday night, with one of them calling for talks with rebel leaders and the other urging the regime’s loyalists to fight to the death.
The dueling messages reflected the growing turmoil in Gadhafi’s inner circle on the eve of the 42nd anniversary of his rise to power. This year, the dictator is a fugitive from opposition fighters who have seized most of the country in a six-month civil war. Now, they say they’re hot on his trail.
The rebels are pooling tips about Moammar Gadhafi’s whereabouts from captured regime fighters and others, and believe he is most likely no longer in Tripoli, said Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the rebels’ military chief in the capital.
Rebel forces have been advancing toward three regime strongholds: the town of Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown, as well as the towns of Bani Walid and Sabha, the latter hundreds of miles south of the capital of Tripoli.
There has been speculation that Gadhafi is hiding in one of them.
In telephone calls to Arab TV stations within minutes of each other Wednesday night, two men claiming to be Gadhafi’s sons sent messages to the Libyan people.
A man identifying himself as Seif al-Islam Gadhafi urged his father’s supporters to fight the rebels “day and night.” He told the Syrian-based Al-Rai TV station that residents of Bani Walid agreed that “we are going to die on our land.”
He said NATO carried out several airstrikes in Bani Walid that killed people.
“All move right now,” said Seif al-Islam, once considered the moderate face of the Gadhafi regime and the leader’s heir apparent.
“Attack the rats,” he said, referring to the rebels.
He said he was calling from a suburb of Tripoli and that his father “is fine.”
The caller dismissed comments by Belhaj that another Gadhafi son, al-Saadi, was negotiating the terms of his surrender. Seif al-Islam said his brother was under pressure, in part out of concern for his family.
In a separate phone call to the Al-Arabiya TV station, a man identifying himself as al-Saadi said he was ready to negotiate with the rebels to stop the bloodshed. Rebel leaders have repeatedly said they won’t negotiate until Gadhafi is gone.
Al-Saadi said he spoke for his father and regime military commanders in calling for talks. He said that the rebels could lead Libya.
“We don’t mind. We are all Libyans,” he said. “We have no problem to give them power.”
The voice of Seif al-Islam — who was reportedly captured by the rebels earlier this month only to turn up free and defiant in Tripoli — was easily recognizable, but al-Saadi’s was more difficult to confirm.
“The regime is dying,” said rebel council spokesman Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga, reacting to the two statements. “Gadhafi’s family is trying to find an exit.”
“They only have to surrender completely to the rebels and we will offer them a fair trial. We won’t hold negotiations with them over anything,” he added.
Ghoga told The Associated Press later Wednesday that the rebels learned two days ago that Gadhafi and his sons Seif al-Islam and al-Saadi were in Bani Walid, but now he doesn’t know their whereabouts.
Hassan al-Saghir, a rebel official who oversees an area that includes the southern city of Sabha, repeated an ultimatum for Gadhafi’s supporters to surrender by Saturday but said there were no signs of that.
“I think they still think they are able to control the south,” he said. “It is a desperate attempt and it will not last long.”
Earlier, Belhaj said al-Saadi called him Tuesday to negotiate the terms of his surrender. Belhaj said he told al-Saadi he would be turned over to Libyan legal authorities after he turns himself in.
“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, speaking at his headquarters at an air base in Tripoli.
Asked by Al-Arabiya if he was offering to surrender, al-Saadi said: “If my surrender will put an end to the bloodshed, I will do that.”
Also Wednesday, two Sabha-area rebel officials said the son of Gadhafi’s intelligence chief was killed in fighting last week. Mohammed Ouydat, a rebel spokesman for Sabha, said the intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senoussi, one of Gadhafi’s closest allies, has set up a tent in Sabha to greet mourners after the death of his son, Mohammed.
The younger al-Senoussi and Gadhafi’s son Khamis were killed in a clash with rebels on their way to Bani Walid, Ouydat said. There have been conflicting claims about Khamis’ fate and neither report could be independently confirmed.
Gadhafi’s eight adult children have played influential roles in Libya, from commanding an elite military unit to controlling the oil sector. Al-Saadi, 38, headed the Libyan Football Federation, and at one point played in Italy’s professional league but spent most of his time on the bench.
Gadhafi’s wife, Safiya, sons Mohammed and Hannibal, and daughter Aisha fled to Algeria on Monday. Aisha gave birth to her fourth child Tuesday in Algeria.
Wednesday was the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Libyans marked it by weeping at the graves of those killed in the civil war, then celebrated their newfound freedom with morning prayers and joyous chants.
Men in their finest white robes and gold-striped vests knelt in neat prayer rows in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square, the plaza formerly known as Green Square, where Gadhafi supporters massed nightly during the uprising.
The prayer leader urged the crowd not to seek retribution. “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!”
On Sept. 1, 1969, the 27-year-old Gadhafi emerged as leader of a group of military officers who overthrew the monarchy of King Idris. Gadhafi took undisputed power and became a symbol of anti-Western defiance in a Third World recently liberated from its European colonial rulers. A brutal dictator, his regime was unchallenged until the last months of his rule.
Sixty world leaders and top-level envoys will meet Thursday in Paris on Libya’s future. The gathering is likely to focus on unfreezing billions in Libyan funds held abroad and reconciling differences over how to deal with the new Libya. The lessons of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and years of insurgent violence there will loom large.
French officials say leaders of Libya’s interim National Transitional Council, the main rebel group, are “completely aware of the lessons” from the Iraq war and have emphasized reconciliation in an effort to avoid the kind of revenge killings that spilled so much Iraqi blood.
“We are going to turn the page of the dictatorship and the fighting, and open a new era of cooperation with democratic Libya,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy told French diplomats.
Michael reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Hadeel al-Shalchi and Karin Laub in Tripoli, Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi, Libya, and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this story.