BENGHAZI, Libya — Libya's rebel government issued an ultimatum Tuesday to backers of ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi: Give up the city of Sirte by Saturday or face a military assault, with the almost certain backing of NATO airpower.
A week after Tripoli fell and a day after Gadhafi's wife and three of his adult children escaped to Algeria, civilian and military officials set the conclusion of the holiday that ends the Ramadan month of fasting as the deadline for Sirte.
The National Transitional Council has been in touch with leaders and tribal elders in the seaside city to avoid more "bloodshed, destruction and damage," chairman Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, said at a news conference, but he added that that "window of opportunity" closes Saturday.
If there were no indication of a peaceful handover, "we can act decisively to end this situation in a military manner," he said. "We do not wish to do so, but we cannot wait more than that."
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"Zero hour is quickly approaching," Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, a military spokesman, said at a separate news conference. "And up to this moment we still have not received any hopeful proposal for the city of Sirte."
NATO, whose aerial bombardment was crucial to the rebels' overwhelming of Gadhafi's military, indicated that it's likely to provide airpower if the transitional council decides to use force.
"We remain fully committed to our mission and to keeping the pressure on the remnants of the Gadhafi regime until we can confidently say that the civilian population of Libya is no longer threatened," Col. Roland Lavoie, a NATO spokesman, said Tuesday in Brussels.
NATO already has stepped up its bombing attacks, hitting Sirte 35 times Monday. U.S. Army Col. Greg Julian, another NATO spokesman, said the targets included three command and control nodes, 22 armed vehicles, a surface-to-air missile system, an anti-aircraft missile system and a military facility. That compared with 30 NATO strikes in Sirte a day earlier and just one strike Saturday.
The stage was set for a final showdown.
As many as 10,000 loyalists are thought to have fled to Sirte, a city of roughly 100,000 that's long been a stronghold of Gadhafi's tribe and is among the places where he's suspected of hiding. There have been reports of heavy weapons, including Frog-7 and Scud ground-to ground missiles as well as tanks and artillery, all ready targets for NATO aircraft, though harder to spot in an urban environment.
National Transitional Council forces have been gathering around the city and blocking most reporters from coming within 50 miles.
The transitional government mentioned two other Gadhafi strongholds where it's also prepared to use force: Bani Walid, a city southeast of Tripoli, and Sabha, deep in the Sahara desert. Bani indicated that Sirte would be the first to come under attack.
The United States and most other leading countries have recognized the council as the legitimate government of Libya. A rapid end to the six-month-old rebellion is crucial to a smooth transition from Gadhafi's erratic four decades of dictatorship to what the new leaders say will be the first democratic regime in Libyan history.
Abdel-Jalil and Bani each had an air of confidence as they coolly fielded a host of questions Tuesday.
Abdel-Jalil said that Gadhafi's wife, Safia, daughter, Aisha, sons Hannibal and Mohammed and their children weren't likely to stay long in Algeria and probably would travel to another country. Algeria has been seen as a Gadhafi backer, but Abdel-Jalil said the two countries were working to align their positions. He said he didn't think that Algeria "will harbor people who pose a risk for Libya" or that it "will harbor people who are wanted internationally for crimes within Libya," an apparent reference to Gadhafi, whom the International Criminal Court has indicted on charges of war crimes.
Bani played down the importance of the escape by Gadhafi's family members, saying they'd fled the country in private cars for their own safety. "There is no bravery in that method of escape," he said.
Abdel-Jalil noted that the transitional council hadn't yet brought charges against any members of the family, but said it would look into how they'd amassed "great fortunes" outside Libya. Special courts will be set up to collect evidence, and Libya will seek the return of the family members to face charges once they're placed, he said.
Abdel-Jalil also said the new regime wouldn't require foreign troops or even foreign police as it attempted to restore order after a half year of upheaval. "The young people who led this revolution and created this victory are able to secure and stabilize our country," he said. "We are betting on our youths, and we are assured and certain we will win this bet."
Bani gave details of a clash between an armed loyalist convoy and a rebel militia in central Libya in which rebels have said that Khamis, another Gadhafi son, may have been killed. Bani said the council was seeking confirmation of his death and that of Abdullah Zanussi, Gadhafi's brother-in-law, who might have been killed in the same encounter.
Bani acknowledged that Gadhafi's whereabouts are unknown. "There are no confirmed reports of his movements, whether to Sirte or otherwise," Bani said. "It's obvious that the noose is tightening around him and sooner or later he will be captured or found."
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