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Anti-Qaddafi Forces Poised For Attack On Libyan City Of Bani Walid

A National Transitional Council fighter sets a target with a rocket launcher on the front line near Umm Khanfis on September 4.

A National Transitional Council fighter sets a target with a rocket launcher on the front line near Umm Khanfis on September 4.

Troops supporting Libya's new interim government have been reinforcing the encirclement of one of the last strongholds for tribal fighters and troops who are loyal to ousted ruler Muammar Qaddafi.

Libya's interim National Transitional Council says there is little hope of averting a battle against pro-Qaddafi fighters in the desert town of Bani Walid about 140 kilometers southeast of Tripoli.

Abdullah Kanshil, the chief negotiator for the council, maintains that talks with tribal leaders in Bani Walid ended on September 4 and will not resume.

"I don't have anything to offer right now, and I hope for those [pro-Qaddafi] brigades in Bani Walid to leave soon," he said.

When asked by a journalist in a follow-up question whether the negotiations were "finished," Kanshil replied, "From my side, yes."

Thousands of anti-Qaddafi fighters have surrounded Bani Walid -- besieging the town to the southeast of Tripoli where at least one of Qaddafi's sons is reported to be hiding. By early today, anti-Qaddafi forces had advanced to positions within 15 kilometers of Bani Walid, bringing the center of the town within range of their heavy artillery.

Civilians fleeing Bani Walid on September 5 claimed most of Qaddafi's forces had fled the town, taking their heavy weaponry with them into hilly terrain nearby.

Those reports could not be immediately confirmed. But the town remains the home base for one of Libya's biggest tribes, the Warfalla tribe, which includes many pro-Qaddafi fighters who are still in Bani Walid.

About one million Libyans, or about one-sixth of the country's population, are members of the Warfalla tribe. Anti-Qaddafi forces include members of the Warfalla clan as well.

Correspondents say anti-Qaddafi fighters have shown a willingness to be patient outside of Bani Walid in hopes of avoiding a bitter inter-clan fight that could create lasting divisions.

But although the anti-Qaddafi forces control most of Libya and are setting up a new government, they can't declare total victory until Qaddafi is caught and areas like Bani Walid are subdued.

Although Bani Walid is now held by pro-Qaddafi loyalists, it also has a history of opposition to Qaddafi's regime. Qaddafi used Libya's air force to put down an uprising by army units in Misurata and Bani Walid in 1993. Many officers who had joined in that uprising were arrested and executed.

Kanshil said it was thought that Qaddafi himself and much of his family had been in Bani Walid recently. But the Transitional Council negotiator did not specify exactly when the ousted ruler was thought to have been there.

'No Surrender!'

Negotiations began last week through tribal intermediaries from the Warfalla clan, in the hope that the standoff at Bani Walid could be resolved without a battle.

Pro-Qaddafi officials are eager to keep the Warfalla tribe in Bani Walid on their side.

A spokesman for Qaddafi, Moussa Ibrahim, has claimed that Warfalla fighters in the town will never surrender.

"There is one thing I assure you: Bani Walid is a big, major city hosting one of the biggest tribes in Libya who have declared their allegiance to the leader [Qaddafi], and they refused all approaches for negotiation with the transitional council," Ibrahim said. "The Transitional Council's messages to Bani Walid are not being heeded here in Bani Walid."

Ahmed Bani, a military spokesman for the National Transitional Council, said a full-scale military assault on Qaddafi's troops and the pro-Qaddafi tribal fighters in Bani Walid now appeared inevitable.

"I would like to confirm to our families and to the international community that Bani Walid will be completely liberated, as our fighters are aware of their tasks," Bani said.

Meanwhile, at a checkpoint that is part of the encirclement of Bani Walid, anti-Qaddafi fighter Ali Saleh said on September 5 that troops in his unit are simply waiting for orders from the National Transitional Council to launch an assault.

"The situation is very calm," he said. "We are waiting for a decision from the [National Transitional] Council to enter [the city of Bani Walid], God willing."

One of the ousted ruler's sons, Saadi Qaddafi, has declared himself "neutral" but says he is still "ready to help negotiate a cease-fire."

Saadi blamed the collapse of negotiations during the weekend on what he called an "aggressive" speech broadcast last week by his brother Saif al-Islam -- who is wanted by the International Criminal Court along with their father on charges of crimes against humanity during Libya's six-month uprising.

Elsewhere, on September 5, NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen, indicated that NATO's mission in Libya has moved significantly closer to success and will end soon.

"Our operation is not yet over, but the direction is clear," he said. "The Libyan people have taken their future in their own hands. They have made history, and so has the international community."

Rasmussen said it will be up to NATO's decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, to determine when "Operation Unified Protector" can end, based on the assessment of military commanders.

China Denies Selling Qaddafi Arms

Meanwhile, China's Foreign Ministry has denied that Chinese companies provided Qaddafi with any weapons as his regime in Libya crumbled, after reports said state-controlled Chinese companies had offered to sell Qaddafi millions of dollars worth of weapons, despite UN sanctions.

A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, acknowledged Qaddafi's officials met with Chinese companies in Beijing in July, but said no contracts were signed and no weapons were shipped.

"The Qaddafi government sent personnel to China, without the knowledge of the Chinese government, who engaged in contact with a handful of people from the companies concerned," Jiang said.

"The Chinese companies did not sign arms-trade contracts, nor did they export military items to Libya."

Reports in Canada's "The Globe and Mail" newspaper on September 4 and in "The New York Times" the next day said that Chinese companies offered to sell weapons and ammunition worth at least $200 million to Qaddafi's forces in late July.

China has not joined Western powers in formally recognizing Libya's National Transitional Council as the legitimate authority in Libya and reports say that even if no deals were signed, the controversy could add to the mistrust between China and Libya's interim council.

On September 5, China's neighbor said it recognized the "legitimacy" of the National Transitional Council in Libya.

Foreign ministry spokesman Askar Abdrakhmanov said Kazakhstan's Deputy Foreign Minister Kairat Sarybai met with Libya's Charge d'Affaires Ahmed al-Dib to inform him of the decision "to recognize the National Transitional Council as Libya's government in power."

Ukrainians Held In Tripoli

Ukraine says it's checking reports that Libya new authorities have arrested 19 Ukrainians on suspicion of acting as mercenary snipers for Qaddafi's regime.

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Voloshyn told the AFP news agency that the embassy in Tripoli "is in contact with the local authorities."

The Ukrainians, who are being held in Tripoli, have strongly denied the allegations in a report by Russian television. They insisted they were simply expatriates working in the Libyan energy sector before the fall of the regime.

A diplomatic source at the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry also said that those detained had "no links to mercenaries and are engineers."

compiled from agency reports

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