BENGHAZI, Libya â€” Supporters of Moammar Gadhafi fired on â€œFree Libyaâ€ forces Sunday as they advanced on one of the last strongholds of the ousted leader, quashing hopes for a peaceful handover of the town, the rebel military spokesman said.
Col. Ahmed Omar Bani said Sunday evening that operations to liberate the town of Bani Walid, southeast of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, could begin within hours, started by backers of the new National Transitional Council within the town. Rebel forces surrounding the town will march in â€œto give congratulations,â€ he said, downplaying the likelihood of a bloody confrontation.
The outcome of Sundayâ€™s clash in the little-known town has taken on significance in part because at least two of Gadhafiâ€™s sons, Seif al-Islam, 49, and Saadi, 38, were reported to be holed up there, and Gadhafi himself may have used it as a way station in what rebel officials have described as a southward escape.
Bani also confirmed that a third son, Khamis, 28, had been killed in a checkpoint skirmish last week and was buried in Bani Walid.
Gadhafiâ€™s own whereabouts are still unknown, and the military spokesman said he may have fled the country. Gadhafi had issued a series of threats to fight to the finish last week, but he hasnâ€™t been heard from since Thursday. Transitional Council officials had last put him in Sabha, a town deep in the Sahara, and they predicted he would flee into land-locked Niger, one of the poorest countries in Africa.
Bani Walid is one of three towns singled out by the Transitional Council for military attack if they donâ€™t surrender by Saturday. A clash was reported Sunday near Sirte, Gadhafiâ€™s hometown on the Mediterranean Sea, and there was no sign of a breakthrough in negotiations between the Transitional Council and tribal elders in Sirte. There was also no sign that Sabha, the third town named in Saturdayâ€™s ultimatum, was about to surrender.