TARHOUNA, Libya — Negotiations over the surrender of one of Moammar Gadhafi's remaining strongholds have collapsed, and Libyan rebels were waiting for the green light to launch their final attack on the besieged town of Bani Walid, a spokesman said.
Rebel negotiator Abdullah Kanshil said the talks had broken down after Moussa Ibrahim, Gadhafi's chief spokesman and a top aide, had insisted the rebels put down their weapons before entering the town, some 90 miles southeast of Tripoli.
Rebel forces control most of the oil-rich North African nation and are already setting up a new government, but Gadhafi and his staunchest allies remain on the run and enjoy support in several central and southern areas, including Bani Walid and the fugitive leader's hometown of Sirte.
The rebels have said the hard-core loyalists are a small minority inside the town, but are heavily armed and stoking fear to keep other residents from surrendering.
"We feel sorry for the people of Bani Walid," said Kanshil, himself a native of the town, speaking to reporters at a rebel checkpoint about 40 miles (70 kilometers) to the north. "We hope for the best for our town."
The rebels have extended to Saturday a deadline for the surrender of Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte and other loyalist areas but some have warned they could attack Bani Walid sooner because many of the most prominent former regime officials were believed to be inside.
There has been speculation that Gadhafi himself along with his son Seif al-Islam had been there at some point, and the apparent presence of Ibrahim indicates that the town was a haven for high-level Gadhafi aides.
"This battle has already been decided," said Ahmed Bani, the rebels' military spokesman based in Benghazi. "It is only a matter of hours."
He said there had been clashes around the town for the last four days and rebel forces had come under fire from rockets and machine guns.
Thousands of rebel fighters have converged on Bani Walid in recent days from multiple directions.
The rebels say Gadhafi does have some genuine supporters in Bani Walid, mainly people linked to the dictator through an elaborate patronage system that helped keep him in power for nearly 42 years.
Gadhafi supporters are "claiming that (rebel) fighters will come and rape their women," said Mubarak al-Saleh, the representative from Bani Walid to the rebels' transitional council. "We are trying to assure people that the fighters are true Muslims who will not harm anybody except those whose hands are stained with blood."
Rebels arriving from Misrata, a western port that played a central role in the war, reported late Saturday they faced no resistance when they took two military camps on the outskirts of Bani Walid.
"Negotiations are over, and we are waiting for orders" to attack, said Mohammed al-Fassi, a rebel commander. "We wanted to do this without bloodshed, but they took advantage of our timeline to protect themselves."
Al-Fassi said more Gadhafi loyalists have moved into Bani Walid from the south outlined by a line of high hills, but did not know how many.
NATO, meanwhile, reported bombing a military barracks, a police camp and several other targets near the southern stronghold of Sirte overnight, as well as targets near Hun, a possible staging ground in the desert halfway between Sirte and Sabha. It also reported bombing an ammunition storage facility near Bani Walid. Sirte is Gadhafi's hometown.
NATO has been bombing Gadhafi's forces since March under a United Nations mandate to protect Libyan civilians. But that mandate expires on Sept. 27, and the rebels may be anxious to end the fight before it runs out — since it may be politically difficult to get it renewed.
- Pope in blistering critique of Vatican...
- NYPD: Cop ambush killer told passers-by to watch
- 9 films advance in Oscars shortlist for best...
- The Associated Press' top 10 movies of the year
- 10 years on, where did all the tsunami debris...
- Spain hands out $3B in planet's biggest lottery
- 'Hobbit' goes out on top with $90.6 million...
- Police: Fugitive killed Florida officer
- Vermont governor abandons single-payer... 33
- Forget Santa Claus, Virginia. Was there... 19
- Police boss: NYC cops 'quite simply,... 17
- A post-election flurry: Obama tests his... 16
- NYPD: Cop ambush killer told passers-by... 13
- Going it alone, Obama rocked the boat... 11
- Utah mourners for Pakistani children... 8
- Obama declares 2014 'a breakthrough... 7