Deposed leader Moamer Kadhafi called on Libyans to turn out in their millions to demonstrate against the country’s new rulers, as his forces launched a counter-attack in his besieged hometown Sirte.
Kadhafi’s plea, made in a poor quality audio message broadcast late Thursday on Syria-based Arrai television, came as US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta was holding talks in Naples with NATO officers on the future of the Libyan air war.
“I call on the Libyan people, men and women, to go out into the squares and the streets and in all the cities in their millions” to reject the National Transitional Council, the deposed leader said.
“I say to them, do not fear anyone. You are the people, you belong to this land,” said Kadhafi, whose whereabouts are unknown but is widely thought to still be in Libya.
“Make your voice heard against NATO’s collaborators,” he said, in reference to the new regime of the National Transitional Council.
His message came as fighting raged in Sirte, his hometown on the Mediterranean coast, where his loyalists tried to break a three-week siege of the city by NTC fighters.
Fighting on Sirte’s northeastern front erupted Thursday morning after Kadhafi’s diehards advanced under the cover of darkness, fighters told AFP.
“There was a lot of movement during the night; their snipers advanced here and there,” one fighter said.
Sirte and Bani Walid, a desert town 170 kilometres (100 miles) southeast of of Tripoli, are Kadhafi’s last major bastions against the NTC, which has ruled most of the oil-rich country since the veteran strongman was toppled in August.
By the middle of the day, NTC fighters had halted the pro-Kadhafi assault and were advancing on foot among the buildings, in the face of rocket and sniper fire.
“Today we carried out a pincer movement to try to cut off the Mauritanian Quarter, where there are a number of (Kadhafi) fighters, and to cut off their rear,” said an NTC commander, Nasser el-Mgasibi.
He was speaking from the Alkardabiya Hotel on the seashore, overlooking the front, which was shelled by Kadhafi forces on Thursday.
Meanwhile, NTC reinforcements were being sent to Bani Walid for another assault of Kadhafi’s loyalists who are fiercely defending the oasis.
Mussa Ali Yunes, commander of the Jado Brigade, said “we are heading for the southern front of Bani Walid,” speaking of a column of 1,000 men and hundreds of vehicles.
Yunes said efforts were being made to convince the remaining 10 percent of the population still there to leave before the new assault is launched after a month-long siege.
“The offensive could, possibly, be launched in two days, but that depends” on the situation, he added, explaining that the NTC forces were outgunned.
“There are many weapons in Bani Walid, weapons of high technology, very recent, coming from Russia,” he said. “We need more precise weapons but also intelligence on the inside, particularly on the number of missiles they have.
“About 2,000 fighters are deployed on the northern front, but they only have light weapons for now, because all the heavy weapons are in Sirte.”
Yunes said Kadhafi son “Seif al-Islam is in Bani Walid and possibly Kadhafi as well, but there is a 50 percent doubt about that. There are many Kadhafi loyalists in Bani Walid, more than in Sirte.”
On Tuesday, an NTC commander said Seif al-Islam was leading the final stand inside the besieged oasis.
Seif al-Islam, his father and Kadhafi’s intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi are the subject of International Criminal Court war crimes arrest warrants for murder and persecution in the bloody uprising.
Amid complaints that NATO air strikes had destroyed homes and killed residents in Sirte, Panetta flew to the allied command in Naples to confer with officers overseeing the air war.
The Pentagon chief told a news conference that NATO allies were weighing when to halt the bombing campaign and that it would depend in part on the strength of local forces on the ground, who have encircled Kadhafi’s loyalists.
He said NATO defence ministers reached a consensus on the conditions for ending the six-month Libya air war, vowing to keep bombing until Kadhafi forces stop attacking civilians and the new leadership can ensure security across the country.
NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, US Admiral James Stavridis, recommended to the defence ministers late Wednesday that the mission continue until the new leadership consolidates control of the entire country, diplomats said.