Libya's civil war was renewed in earnest last night as rebel forces attacked a loyalist stronghold south of Tripoli to end a fortnight-long stand-off.
A rebel army spokesman confirmed there were preliminary skirmishes in Bani Walid itself, with a main attack due to take place today.
There were also reports of clashes on the outskirts of Muammar Gaddafi's home town of Sirte last night.
Commanders at the Bani Walid front said the rebels who had surrounded the town had moved in from the south and east. Abdullah Kenshil, a local representative of the National Transitional Council, said rebels inside the town had also taken up arms against the loyalists troops there, taking on snipers on rooftops.
Bani Walid and Sirte had both been given until today to negotiate a peaceful transfer of power.
Talks in Bani Walid almost succeeded earlier in the week but rebels said 70 troops left behind by Gaddafi and his sons as they fled south through the town were holding the town hostage.
Mr Kenshil said the early attack in advance of the end of the ceasefire came in response to a missile attack on rebel positions from inside the town.
Hameda al-Magari, a spokesman for the Tripoli Military Council, said the full assault on the town would not come until today. "We shall have taken it by the evening, God willing," he said.
While Sirte has symbolic importance as Gaddafi's hometown and showpiece city, Bani Walid has great strategic significance as a gateway to the south and the desert, where Gaddafi is believed to be hiding.
He is said, by the last witnesses to have seen him, to have headed in the direction of Bani Walid on August 26, travelling straight on to Sabha in the south. His son Saif al-Islam stayed in Bani Walid for at least a week marshalling defences.
Military strategists for the rebels believe Gaddafi is in a 40sq mile area of the southern desert with 3,000 to 4,000 troops, mercenaries and followers from the Touareg, a tribe which has traditionally been loyal to him.
Joining the hunt for Gaddafi, Interpol issued warrants for his arrest yesterday, as well as for Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, who are all wanted by the International Criminal Court for suspected crimes against humanity.
A number of Toureg leaders have crossed the border into Niger. One said that many pro-Gaddafi leaders were now spread out across north Africa.
"Confusion reigns everywhere. The Gaddafi camp is falling apart," Aghali Alambo, a Toureg leader who has fled to Niger, told journalists. "Nobody trusts anyone outside their close clan.
"There are regime figures in Algeria, Tunisia and Mali. Others have gone in the direction of Chad." (© Daily Telegraph, London)