TRIPOLI, Libya — A hunted Moammar Gadhafi called on his remaining loyalists Thursday to keep fighting, as the country's acting premier appealed from the capital for national unity to rebuild the North African nation after six months of civil war.
Rebel forces effectively ended Gadhafi's rule last month when they seized the capital Tripoli, sending the 42-year autocrat into hiding. Libya's new rulers have been searching for him while trying to negotiate the surrender of towns still held by Gadhafi supporters.
On Thursday, Gadhafi loyalists fired at least 10 rockets from inside one of the towns at former rebel forces amassed outside.
Former rebels have been waiting outside Bani Walid for days while their leaders try to negotiate the town's surrender before a deadline this weekend.
Speaking to reporters in Tripoli Thursday, Mahmoud Jibril, the acting prime minister, called the negotiations an opportunity to avoid further bloodshed, but said his forces would respond if attacked.
"The right to self-defense will remain a right even before this issue concludes," he said. He also criticized the town's leaders, saying they had shown "no real initiatives or intentions to give peace a chance and bring unity back to the Libya people."
Bani Walid, a dusty town of 100,000 some 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, has emerged as a focus in the fight against pro-Gadhafi holdouts. Some say prominent regime loyalists, including Gadhafi's son and one-time heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, could be inside.
Regime loyalists also still control Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte and the southern city of Sabha.
In Tripoli, Jibril said that a new government can be formed only after the whole country is "liberated."
"I hope that we as Libyans, just as we fought to free the land and its people, will be able to join hands to fight the battle to rebuild," he said.
Thursday's appearance was Jibril's first since rebel forces stormed the capital on Aug. 21. Since then, Libya's new leaders have been scrambling to establish an interim administration to run the country's affairs until a new constitution can be written and elections can be held.
Many high-level leaders in the National Transitional Council, including its head, have yet to move to the capital. Jibril said the delay was for security reasons.
"Don't forget that many elements of the regime and pockets of the regime are still present," he said. "And it is our right as Libyans to protect the leaders of this revolution."
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 pro-Gadhafi satellite TV channel based in Syria.
Gadhafi hasn't been seen in public for months. Finding him would help seal the new rulers' hold on the country and likely trigger the collapse of remaining loyalist resistance.
In Thursday's five-minute audio message, aired on Al-Rai TV, a man who sounded like Gadhafi said he was still in Libya.
"We are ready to start the fight in Tripoli and everywhere else, and rise up against them," he said. "All of these germs, rats ... they are not Libyans, ask anyone. They have cooperated with NATO."
Gadhafi tried to counter what he called a propaganda war, telling 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 those of Gadhafi, who has used the TV channel in the past.
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