BENGHAZI, Libya — Forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi have moved hundreds of hostages to a village outside Sirte in what appear to be preparations for a final violent stand, officials of the National Transitional Council said Thursday.
The transfer of as many as 300 rebels taken captive during recent fighting to the village of Qasr bu Hadi, which is about 10 miles east of Sirte, took place earlier this week, transitional council officials told McClatchy.
Fathi Baja, the head of political affairs for the council, equated the transfer of the prisoners to "taking human shields."
Gadhafi loyalists also arrested at least four prominent backers of the National Transitional Council in Sirte on Wednesday and have moved them as well to Qasr bu Hadi, which is under the control of Gadhafi's Gaddhafiya tribe, according to Hassan al Droe, Sirte's representative to the council.
A rebel deadline for a negotiated settlement runs out at midnight Friday, and officials are now girding for a bloody endgame.
Gadhafi and his backers appeared to be preparing a final stand. The former dictator has been issuing orders on a local FM radio station, council officials said, urging his loyalists to continue the fight.
In a local radio statement issued Wednesday and not previously reported, Gadhafi commanded his backers to organize 1,000 cars and drive east on Libya's Mediterranean coast to reconquer the oil refinery town of Brega, Droe told McClatchy.
Only 90 vehicles responded, however, according to Droe, who said he stays in touch with town elders by satellite phone. It would have been a quixotic mission in any case; Brega lies 200 miles east of Sirte, and NATO bombers — or rebel forces — could readily have intercepted any mass movement of vehicles.
"He wants all, even those who believe in him, to die," Droe said.
Droe estimated that there were about 1,000 loyalist fighters in Sirte and about the same number in Qasr bu Hadi.
National Transitional Council officials said they don't know for sure where Gadhafi is now hiding, but the moves by his loyalists around Sirte, together with the FM broadcast, seemed to point to his likely presence near the city.
Qasr bu Hadi has been sealed off by rebel forces for the past 10 days, Droe said.
In Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli, another town still in loyalist hands, the transitional council's interim prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, personally joined negotiations with town elders on Wednesday evening, the council's Baja said. Jibril, who headed Gadhafi's National Economic Development Board before defecting early this year, was born in Bani Walid and is a member of the Warfalla, which is Libya's biggest tribe and dominates Bani Walid.
Baja said Jibril's engagement was intended to show townspeople that Bani Walid would not be the target of revenge from the new regime but would be welcomed into the new Libya. But Grad rockets fired out of the town toward rebel forces suggested that Bani Walid, too, may not surrender peacefully. Two of Gadhafi's sons, Saif al Islam and Saadi, are said to have been hiding in Bani Walid.
At Wadi Dinar, the last major rebel checkpoint between Tripoli and Bani Walid, about 12 miles west of the contested town, rebel troops said they were ready to attack once they received the command.
"The people in Bani Walid are afraid because they killed so many people during the revolution," said Mufta Abu Shnaf, a commander at the checkpoint. "There are many people in Bani Walid who are with us, but what is known is that Gadhafi has a mobile force that can control a city in a few hours. We are waiting for the NTC to give orders. Until then, there is a cease fire."
Abu Shnaf said a few families had crossed through the checkpoint on Thursday, mostly people who had gone to Bani Walid to escape fighting in Tripoli.
"They were looking for security," Abu Shnaf said. "There is not enough food and water in Bani Walid. No electricity and no gas."
As for Gadhafi's two sons, he said, "My information is that they are in Bani Walid."
Gadhafi's message to his followers in Sirte was heavy on bravado but built around a highly inaccurate depiction of the facts on the ground, Droe said. Gadhafi said his forces were not far from Ajdabiya, a town close to Benghazi, Libya's major eastern city, and that they were also on their way to free Misrata, which lies about 150 miles west of Sirte.
Both Ajdabiya and Misrata are firmly in rebel hands as are all but three of Libya's cities — Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha in the desert south.
In a message broadcast by Syria's Rai TV channel on Thursday, Gadhafi denied that he had fled to Niger and denounced the uprising against him. It was the first broadcast of a Gadhafi message outside Sirte in a week.
Libya's new rulers sent a delegation to Niamey, Niger's capital, on Wednesday to demand that Niger hand over Gadhafi's former security chief, Mansour Dhao, who arrived in a convoy of vehicles on Monday that was also carrying a large quantity of gold, cash and other state property said to be looted from banks in Sirte and Sabha.
Niger said it would give asylum to Dhao but assured the rebel delegation that it would stop any other convoys trying to flee, Baja said.
(Enders, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Wadi Dinar)
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