Can a fierce battle for Qaddafi's home town be avoided?
Anti-Qaddafi militias have the coastal city of Sirte surrounded and they may not give loyalists in the Qaddafi stronghold much longer to negotiate a surrender deal.
Libyan revolutionaries have not yet conducted any negotiations with the leaders of Muammar Qaddafi's home city of Sirte, but hope to within several days, the leader of Libyaâ€™s anti-Qaddafi forces in the east said Saturday.
â€śWe've been asking to negotiate with [Qaddafi loyalist leaders in] Sirte, but nobody has come out to negotiate with us,â€ť says Fawzy Boukatif.
Several fairly high-ranking figures from Qaddafiâ€™s regime are thought to be in Sirte, along with the â€śremainsâ€ť of all the brigades that have been fighting in the area and have steadily retreated toward the city in recent weeks, says Mr. Boukatif.
How negotiations play out over the next week will determine whether a fierce and deadly battle for the city can be avoided â€“ or at least limited. Another key factor is whether the people of the longtime Qaddafi stronghold will fight alongside the hardcore loyalists or abandon them.
â€śThe problem is there are some figures there and they have been committed to Qaddafi for the past decades, and of course they will be legally accused of lots of [crimes],â€ť says Boukatif, adding that those figures are pushing the people of Sirte to fight to the end. â€śBut once the people decide they not going to fight for the cause of the others, the problem will be solved.â€ť
Whether that will happen, he says, should become clear in the next two to three days.
On Thursday, however, Boukatif helped negotiated the surrender of two towns to the east of Sirte: Umm El Gindeel and Harawa, he says.
In both cities, tribal elders came outside the city to talk with counterparts from the area. When the cityâ€™s elders indicated they were willing to surrender, Boukatif and National Transitional Council (NTC) Defense Minister Jalal Dagheily negotiated the final terms, says Boukatif.
In both towns, the citizens agreed to give up the weapons that Qaddafiâ€™s forces had given them to fight the rebels.
In return, the rebel leaders promised security, and supplies of food and fuel. The deal will be completed in about two days after the rebels collect the weapons, says Boukatif.
Window for talks quickly closing
Boukatif said that areas of the countryâ€™s southern border, including the area near the nexus of borders with Algeria and Niger, and the area of Libya north of the border with Chad, were still not in rebel control.
The rebels are in the process of sending humanitarian aid â€“ food and milk â€“ to Sirte after learning the residents needed it.
Last week, the NTC extended the Saturday deadline for the surrender Sirte by one week from Saturday after the revolutionaries received a phone call from a Qaddafi figure outside Libya who said that Qaddafi loyalists in Sirte were willing to surrender, says Boukatif. He would not say who that figure was.
Shems El Din Ben Ali, a spokesman for the NTC, said that Qaddafi loyalists in Sirte wanted amnesty as a precondition for negotiating.
â€śThat condition has been rejected,â€ť he said. â€śWe have guaranteed their safety and fair trial, but beyond that, they cannot be forgiven.â€ť
Anti-Qaddafi forces confident of total victory
Though many have warned of a deadly fight for control of loyalist cities like Sirte, the rebel leaders sought to portray their position as one of strength.
â€śWe can enter any city, and we can direct our forces to any region, but because of our care and desire to avoid bloodshed and to avoid further destruction of some national institutions,â€ť the NTC had extended the deadline, Jalil said in a Saturday press conference.
Boukatif says a fight for Sirte, if it came to that, would not be difficult. Morale there is low, he says, because Qaddafi loyalists know that if they fight, they are fighting to the death.