Gaddafi's son flees Libya to Niger as rebels close in on regime's last bastions
Saadi Gaddafi crosses border, while rebel fighters overcome fierce resistance in Bani Walid and Sirte with help from Nato
One of Muammar Gaddafi's sons, Saadi Gaddafi, has crossed into neighbouring Niger, the most high-profile former regime member to flee to the landlocked African country. Saadi, 37, entered the country in a convoy with nine other people, Niger justice minister Amadou Morou said.
His departure came as Libyan rebels are closing in on two of Gaddafi's final strongholds after apparently breaking fierce resistance with Nato support.
Fighters claimed to have broken a stalemate in the desert town of Bani Walid after it was "softened up" by Nato airstrikes. Sabhil Warfalli, one of the rebels, told Reuters: "We are inside Bani Walid, we control big chunks of the city. There are still pockets of resistance."
He said pro-Gaddafi forces were now concentrated in the central market area, an account supported by a resident named Khalifa Telisi, who had telephoned a family in the town. "There is still resistance from the central market," Telisi told Reuters. "All other parts of Bani Walid have been liberated. Another revolutionary battalion is coming in from the south. Gaddafi forces are scattered. It is a matter of hours now."
But a pro-Gaddafi local radio station, said to be controlled by his spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, was still appealing for the town's 100,000 people to fight to the death.
"We urge the people of Bani Walid to defend the city against the rats and armed gangs," an announcer said. "Don't back down. Fight to the death. We are waiting for you. You are just a bunch of gangsters. God is on our side."
For two days Gaddafi troops firing rockets and mortars fought back against rebels trying to push into Bani Walid, where one or more of the deposed leader's sons were believed to be hiding. Rebels admitted they were forced to retreat from the town to allow Nato warplanes to destroy key military targets.
It appeared the rebels had underestimated their opponents' military strength and determination. Some sources claim the National Transitional Council's attempt to negotiate their surrender was a tactical blunder, buying the loyalists crucial time to call for reinforcements and heavy weapons. The rebels had claimed that 80 or fewer snipers were left in Bani Walid, 87 miles from Tripoli. But Nato said its jets hit a tank, two armed vehicles and one multiple rocket launcher near the desert town.
Rebels have also launched a surprise offensive towards Gaddafi's birthplace, Sirte. Jeep-mounted infantry crashed through front lines as they advanced 18 miles towards the former leader's biggest remaining bastion. Several villages were overrun north and south of the coastal highway by brigades totalling 1,000 men, but the central thrust along the highway itself was stopped by artillery fire 80 miles west of the city.
At Kilometre Sixty, a traffic junction 110 miles west of Sirte, columns of dusty black painted pickup trucks streamed to and from the front.
"They are hitting us with artillery, with mortars, with Grad rockets," said a tired-looking fighter, Ismail Katika, 20, dressed in a combat jacket and sports shoes. "We can't move further because we can't see them."
Medical authorities say it is too early to collate casualty figures, but in the hour the Guardian was at Kilometre Sixty, five ambulances raced past from the front. Also arriving from the east were refugees bundled into cars and pickup trucks and heading for Misrata.
Zohar Abushaaf, a 27-year-old hotel worker educated in Bristol and Leeds, said rebel units overran his family village of Al Hayshah in the morning. "They were friendly, there was no resistance," he said, adding that conditions were dire in the village. "Life is getting bad right now; food and water are running out."
Nato said airstrikes pounded targets around Sirte as well as the towns of Waddan and Sabha in the southern desert.
The NTC chairman, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, arrived in Tripoli on Saturday – the first time he had been there since it fell to rebels on 23 August. "Brotherhood and warmth – that's what we will depend on to build our future. We are not at a time of retribution," he said. "This is the time of unity and liberation."
The NTC has said it will complete its move to Tripoli this week, although previous timelines have slipped. But Jalil said Libya could not yet be declared "liberated" from the man who ruled it for nearly 42 years. "Gaddafi still has money and gold," he said. "These are the fundamental things that will allow him to find men."
Saadi and his convoy were intercepted as they travelled south toward the outpost of Agadez, in Niger, where other fleeing Libyan loyalists were believed to be holed up in a hotel.
Justice minister Morou said that Saadi "has no status at all" in Niger, indicating that he has not been granted refugee status, which guarantees certain rights.
Meanwhile, Bouzaid Dorda, Gaddafi's foreign intelligence service chief, was arrested by anti-Gaddafi fighters and is being handed to Libya's interim governing council. Dorda, a former prime minister, was held in the Zenata district of Tripoli.
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