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Gadhafi loyalists fire rockets from desert bastion

By Hadeel Al-shalchi

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 8 2011 5:20 a.m. MDT

Libyan fighters prepare a projectile at the last checkpoint between Tarhouna and Bani Walid, Libya, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011. Thousands of fighters have converged on areas outside Bani Walid and have threatened to attack if residents don't surrender by Saturday. Officials have said the town emerged as a focus because of the number of prominent regime loyalists believed to be inside.

Alexandre Meneghini, Associated Press

WADI DINAR, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi's loyalists fired at least 10 rockets from inside one of his last strongholds Thursday, hours after a TV station aired an audio message believed to be from the ousted Libyan leader urging his fighters on.

Reporters with the forces who chased Gadhafi from the capital late last month heard at least 10 loud explosions along the desert front line at Bani Walid, a dusty town of 100,000 some 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. The barrage followed early morning skirmishing in the same area.

Smoke billowed from where the projectiles landed in Wadi Dinar, about 12 miles outside the town. The former rebels said the projectiles fired were Grad rockets.

Thousands of fighters for Libya's new leadership have converged on Bani Walid. Officials have said a number of prominent regime loyalists, including Gadhafi's son and one-time heir apparent Seif al-Islam, are believed to be inside.

From hiding hours earlier, Gadhafi denied rumors he had fled Libya, vowed never to leave the land of his ancestors and exhorted followers to keep fighting. The message was broadcast on a loyalist TV channel.

Gadhafi, in power for nearly 42 years, hasn't been seen in public for months. A military official in Libya's new leadership had said a day earlier Gadhafi was cornered and would soon be captured or killed, but another senior defense official contended his whereabouts are unknown.

Finding Gadhafi would help seal the new rulers' hold on the country, and likely trigger the collapse of the remaining regime loyalists still fighting the former rebels.

In Thursday's five-minute-long audio, aired on Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, a man who sounded like Gadhafi denounced reports that he had fled to neighboring Niger and claimed he is still in Libya. He called those who ousted him "a bunch of mercenaries, thugs and traitors."

"We are ready to start the fight in Tripoli and everywhere else, and rise up against them," Gadhafi said. "All of these germs, rats and scumbags, they are not Libyans, ask anyone. They have cooperated with NATO."

Niger officials have said senior members of Gadhafi's regime led by his own security chief crossed from Libya on Tuesday. Niger said the group of 13 did not include Gadhafi, and U.S. officials have said they have no reason to believe Gadhafi is not in Libya. But reports of the apparent defection of some of his top aides — and rumors that it involved a large number of senior soldiers who left with money and gold — were believed to have undermined morale among Gadhafi loyalists.

Gadhafi tried to counteract what he portrayed as a propaganda war, telling his followers in the message broadcast Thursday: "They are trying to demoralize you."

"Gadhafi won't leave the land of his ancestors," he said, referring to himself in the third person, a rhetorical habit.

The authenticity of the recording could not be verified but the voice and style strongly resembled Gadhafi, who has used the TV channel in the past.

It took opposition fighters more than six months to drive Gadhafi out of power. Libya's interim health minister, Naji Barakat, said Wednesday that at least 30,000 people were killed and 50,000 wounded in the civil war. The figures, though incomplete, were based on body counts from some areas and estimates from others, Barakat said.

Libya has just over 6 million people, and if the figure provided by Barakat is confirmed, it would be a measure of the high price Libyans paid to oust Gadhafi. It may take several more weeks to get a complete count, Barakat told The Associated Press.

In Tripoli Thursday, the new governor of Libya's central bank told reporters the former regime sold about 20 percent — 29 tons — of the country's gold reserves to cover salaries during the uprising. Qassim Azzuz also said none of the bank's assets were "missing or were stolen" during the uprising. He said the figures did not include still unknown sums of money accumulated by Gadhafi and his family, which were held outside the local banking sector.

The former rebels are still battling regime loyalists in two other Gadhafi strongholds in addition to Bani Walid, Sabha and Gadhafi's Mediterranean hometown of Sirte.

In London Thursday, Major Gen. Nick Pope, a defense ministry spokesman, said British fighter aircraft under NATO authority spotted concentrations of Gadhafi forces in and around Sirte.

"The RAF aircraft mounted a series of precision attacks ... and successfully destroyed four main battle tanks, three armored personnel carriers, a self-propelled gun, two other armored vehicles and an artillery piece," Pope said.

NATO added its overnight bombing targets included five armored vehicles near Sirte and 18 surface-to-air missile systems near the desert town of Waddan, 300 kilometers (about 180 miles) south of Sirte on the way to Sabha.

Associated Press writers Karin Laub in Tripoli and Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi contributed reporting.

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