TRIPOLI (AFP) – Heavy fighting was underway Friday outside Bani Walid, a stronghold of deposed Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi, as forces loyal to the interim government were poised for an assault on the town if it does not surrender.

And while world police body Interpol called for the fugitive Kaddafi’s arrest for crimes against humanity, following a request by the International Criminal Court, there were reports a number of his generals had fled Libya.

The National Transitional Council has set a Saturday deadline for towns still loyal to Kaddafi to surrender, and on-off talks have been going on for days over Bani Walid, where a number of former regime officials, including Kaddafi’s spokesman Mussa Ibrahim, are believed to be holed up.

The town has not yet been attacked, but NTC commander Abdullah al-Khzami said “fierce fighting between our forces and pro-Kaddafi ones are underway in sectors very close” to it.

“The revolutionaries have reached the gates of the city, and its first neighbourhoods lie before us, but we will not enter until the ultimatum expires,” he told AFP amid reports of an undetermined number of casualties.

Colonel Daou al-Salhine al-Jadak, commander of forces around Bani Walid, added that “revolutionaries had begun operations inside” the town, but that could not be independently confirmed.

Columns of smoke and the crump of shelling could be heard by journalists 20 kilometres from Bani Walid.

Earlier, another commander, Abdullah al-Hakim, said pro-Kadhafi forces were shelling his forces about 30 kilometres away “to keep us from advancing on Bani Walid,” and that one of his men had been killed.

And an AFP correspondent said convoys carrying fighters and ammunition were heading toward Bani Walid, 170 kilometres (105 miles) southwest of the capital.

In Brussels, NATO said its aircraft destroyed two Scud missiles around Bani Walid on Friday.

“The intent of Kadhafi forces to use these indiscriminate weapons represents a serious threat to civilians in Libya and demonstrates their willingness to ignore calls for discussions,” said Colonel Roland Lavoie, the NATO mission’s spokesman.

Meanwhile, on the road to Kaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, rebels who on Thursday captured Red Valley, 60 kilometres (40 miles) to the east, were under counter-attack, an AFP correspondent reported.

Sporadic fighting had ensued on Friday morning, and Kaddafi forces launched their counter-offensive with the arrival of a convoy of 10 vehicles along the front line.

NTC fighters fired anti-aircraft guns and held their positions under cover along the road and behind two buildings just outside the town, and the reporter said they appeared to be readying a pushback, with tanks moving toward the front.

Speaking for the first time from Tripoli since it was captured on August 23, de facto premier Mahmud Jibril warned late Thursday that “the battle of liberation is not finished.”

Jibril, who refused to speculate on Kaddafi’s whereabouts, acknowledged the conflict would end only with the “capture or elimination of Kaddafi.”

The NTC fears Kaddafi will try to slip across one of Libya’s porous borders, and neighbouring Niger strongly denied he was there after a convoy carrying other senior ousted regime officials arrived on Monday.

In a defiant message on Thursday — his first for days — Kaddafi dismissed as lies reports that he had fled to Niger, insisting he was still in Libya.

Interpol said it had issued a “red notice” for the arrest of Kaddafi, his son Seif al-Islam and his intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, a day after ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo asked for the agency’s help.

The “request for Interpol Red Notices will significantly restrict the ability of all three men to cross international borders and is a powerful tool to help in their location and arrest,” Interpol chief Ronald Noble said.

“Kaddafi is a fugitive whose country of nationality and the International Criminal Court want arrested and held accountable for the serious criminal charges that have been brought against him,” he said.

In a bid to sever potential escape routes, the NTC said it had dispatched a team to the Nigerien capital Niamey, and Washington said Kaddafi aides who entered Niger were being detained but none appeared to be on a list of persons subject to UN sanctions.

On Friday, a source from Niger’s ethnic Tuareg community in Niamey said a number of Libyan generals loyal to Kaddafi are now in Burkina Faso after having passed through Niger.

“Three or four weeks ago a group of generals and senior officials close to Kaddafi entered Niger via Agadez,” the source said, giving no numbers.

They continued on to Niamey, where they made large transactions at the Libyan Bisic bank before going on to Burkina Faso, the source added.

Meanwhile, China — which long propped up the fallen strongman and has extensive business interests in Libya — said it was ready to help rebuild the North African nation.

“It depends on the needs of the Libyan people themselves, whatever they need we will be willing to help them,” said Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, adding China would support UN-led reconstruction efforts.

Elsewhere on the economic front, The Netherlands received permission Friday to unfreeze $2 billion (1.4 billion euros) in Libyan assets and send them to the NTC, its foreign affairs ministry said.

The savings, from the Central Bank of Libya, are taken from a total of 3.1 billion euros frozen in March by the Dutch government in line with EU sanctions imposed against Libya


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