TRIPOLI, Libya — The Libyan rebels’ transitional government on Thursday extended by a week its ultimatum demanding the surrender of the loyalists of Moammar Gadhafi who control his hometown, Surt. Also Thursday, the fugitive Libyan leader released an audio recording proclaiming that Surt was now the Libyan capital.
The extension of the deadline was an attempt to avoid a bloody confrontation that could impede the hoped-for reconciliation of the divided country.
Rebel leaders have said that they are negotiating with tribal elders within Surt to try to broker a peaceful handover of the city, and Abdel Hafidh Ghoga, deputy chairman of the rebels’ leadership council, told The Associated Press that the deadline had been extended because “there are good indications that things are moving in the right direction.”
But the rebels also know that Surt had proved insurmountable for their fighters even before they were stretched thin guarding Tripoli to the west.
Gadhafi, meanwhile, marked the anniversary of his 1969 coup with two audio messages, released over Arabic language television networks, that seemed both to bait the rebels and to flout reality. Rambling, disjointed and defiant to the point of delusion, his messages almost dared the rebels to find him. He not only declared his tribal hometown to be the new capital but also insisted that the committees of his government were now meeting there.
They were his first messages in more than a week on the run. He implored his supporters to flight on, calling for “guerrilla warfare” and “urban fighting” that would leave the country “engulfed by flames.”
The rebels scoffed at his bravado.
“The insurgency will drive him out,” said Ali Sallabi, a prominent Islamist scholar among the revolt’s leaders. “His era has ended for good.”
Gadhafi has been a fugitive since the rebels invaded Tripoli late last month in what quickly became a decisive turn in the six-month conflict.
Rebel officials said they thought Gadhafi was hiding in the desert town of Bani Walid, 150 miles southeast of Tripoli. It is the homeland of Libya’s largest tribe, the Warfalla, which has a historic relationship as a patron of his own smaller tribe.
Aside from Surt and Bani Walid, the third stronghold where he may be hiding is the town of Sabha in southern Libya, another outpost of his tribe.