BENGHAZI, Libya — Ousted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is fleeing south across the Sahara Desert, bound perhaps for the border with Niger, the military spokesman for the rebel National Transitional Council told McClatchy Newspapers on Thursday.
Col. Ahmed Omar Bani said Gadhafi had escaped from the town of Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli, on Thursday and had managed to make it to Sabha, some 400 miles south of Tripoli.
But Bani predicted that Gadhafi wouldn’t remain long in the sprawling garrison town and instead would flee another 350 miles across the desert into land-locked Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, now under military rule.
Bani’s account of Gadhafi’s flight came as the fugitive former dictator issued a defiant call to his supporters to “continue the fight from city to city, valley to valley, mountain to mountain” and predicted that “It is going to be a long battle.
“The Libyan people cannot kneel, cannot surrender; we are not women,” he said in an audio recording broadcast on al-Rai, a Syrian television channel.
It wasn’t clear whether the aim of this latest broadcast was to motivate loyalists in his hometown of Sirte, as well as Bani Walid and Sabha, or to provide cover while he escaped the country he ruled for 42 years. It followed contradictory signals about his ultimate intentions by two of his sons who are still in Libya.
Libya’s new transitional leaders on Thursday delayed for at least a week the Saturday deadline for Gadhafi loyalists in Sirte to surrender or face military assault. The same ultimatum has been issued to Gadhafi’s supporters in Bani Walid and Sabha. The three cities are thought to be the last significant pro-Gadhafi outposts in Libya.
National Transitional Council officials said they extended the deadline because there had been signs of progress in their talks with tribal elders in Sirte, a city of about 100,000 on Libya’s Mediterranean coast. “People in Sirte say they are with the revolution,” Bani said, “but they fear” that Gadhafi loyalists “will kill all of us” if the council attempts to enter the city by fo rce.
“Maybe we will have another solution this week that will avoid bloodshed for Libyans,” he said.
Bani didn’t reveal how rebel leaders were tracking Gadhafi’s movements. He said rebel forces had positions on several sides of Bani Walid and supporters in the other towns.
Bani said rebel leaders hoped that if Gadhafi fled the country or fell into rebel hands, loyalist resistance would collapse in Sirte and the other two cities.
Gadhafi’s two sons still in Libya had issued conflicting signals Wednesday about his intentions. Saadi, 38, told a top military aide in the transitional regime that his father had authorized him to negotiate an end to the fighting if Saadi could have a guarantee of his own safety. Seif al-Islam, 49, who had been the heir apparent, pledged a war of attrition until Libya was cleansed from “gangs and traitors.” Council officials turned down Saadi’s offer, saying Saadi would have to face trial in a duly constituted court.
Thursday was the 42nd anniversary of the military coup that overthrew King Idris and brought Gadhafi to power, but the event went unmarked in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and the starting point for the movement that overthrew Gadhafi.
It was also the day that leaders of 60 countries, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, met with Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the council’s chairman, in Paris and committed their countries to supporting Libya’s reconstruction and releasing tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets.
British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged that NATO would continue its mission, mandated in a U.N. Security Council resolution, to protect the Libyan population. The European Union announced that it had lifted sanctions on major state oil firms and port authorities effective Friday.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International issued a new report on a possible war crime in the town of Khums, 75 miles east of Tripoli, where then-government forces held 29 suspected rebels in two cramped cargo containers. In temperatures over 100 degrees, the detainees drank their own sweat and urine when they ran out of water, survivors said.
Ten of 19 detainees survived in one container, while only one of 10 survived in the smaller container, Amnesty said. Some were held from May 20 until they were released June 6, according to the organization.