BENGHAZI, Libya — From hiding, Moammar Gadhafi denied rumors he fled Libya, vowed never to leave the land of his ancestors and exhorted followers to keep fighting, according to an audio message broadcast Thursday on a loyalist TV channel.
Gadhafi, who ruled Libya for nearly 42 years before opposition forces forced him to flee Tripoli late last month, 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.
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 of Gadhafi.
The authenticity of the recording could not be independently 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.
The former rebels are still battling regime loyalists in three Gadhafi strongholds — Bani Walid, Sabha and Gadhafi's Mediterranean hometown of Sirte.
Clashes broke out overnight near Bani Walid, a dusty town of 100,000 some 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. A commander of the Libyan fighters, Daw Saleheen, said Gadhafi's loyalists from inside Bani Walid tried to ambush the Libyan fighters' positions in Wadi Dinar, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) outside the town, early Thursday. The fighting went on for several hours before subsiding by daybreak. One Gadhafi fighter was reported killed and one anti-Gadhafi fighter wounded.
Thousands of fighters have converged on areas outside 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.
NATO said Thursday that 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.
Al-Shalchi reported from Wadi Dinar, Libya. Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Tripoli contributed reporting.