Col Gaddafi 'in Libya and readying forces'
Muammar Gaddafi is still in Libya and in good spirits, with a powerful army behind him, the ousted leader's spokesman has claimed.
"The leader is in good health, in high morale ... of course he is in Libya," Moussa Ibrahim told Reuters via a crackling satellite telephone line.
"The fight is as far away from the end as the world can imagine. We are still very powerful, our army is still powerful ... we have huge areas of Libya under our control," he said. "We are gathering our forces."
Ibrahim declined to say where he himself was.
Gaddafi's latest comments came as Jeffrey Feltman, a senior US State Department official arrived in Tripoli for talks with Libya's new leaders.
Mr Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is the highest ranking US official to visit the Libyan capital since its capture from Gaddafi forces.
Meanwhile residents of Bani Walid have been given two days to leave before an onslaught begins aimed at capturing one of former Libyan leader Col Gaddafi's last bastions.
Complaining of hardship and intimidation, residents of Bani Walid headed to nearby towns or started the 112 mile journey north towards the capital Tripoli on Tuesday in cars packed with children and possessions.
Forces of the new ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) that overran Tripoli on Aug 23 have met unexpectedly stout resistance in five days of fighting for Bani Walid, a sun-baked town set in rocky hills and valleys. Along with Gaddafi's hometown Sirte on the Mediterranean coast and Sabha in the southern desert, Bani Walid is one of the last strongholds of old regime fighters.
Their dogged resistance has complicated NTC efforts to normalise life in the oil-rich North African state and the United Nations has voiced fears about the plight of civilians marooned inside besieged pro-Gaddafi towns, particularly Sirte.
Gaddafi's whereabouts is unknown. NTC officials have said he could be hiding in one of the outposts like Bani Walid, helping to rally a last stand against Nato-backed forces.
Residents escaping Bani Walid on Monday and Tuesday reported days of intense street-to-street fighting. They began to slip out after Gaddafi forces abandoned some checkpoints on the outskirts.
Bani Walid resident and NTC supporter Isa Amr, 35, said the town was running out of fuel, food and water, making it impossible for his family to stay any longer.
"Rebels gave us some petrol, enough to drive to Tripoli. The rebels are really helping us," he said, driving away with his wife and three young children.
Mr Amr said the NTC was handing out free fuel at the northern entrance to Bani Walid to smooth the evacuation.
Abdulbaset Mohamed Mohamed, 25, another Bani Walid residents driving towards Tripoli, said it was too dangerous to venture outside in the town. Militia men are hiding around the city and (pro-Gaddafi) green flags are everywhere."
NTC field commanders said people in Bani Walid had been told via broadcast radio messages they had two days to leave town before it came under full-blown attack.
"I think only 10 per cent of the people are Gaddafi supporters. They are fanatics. And the rest are waiting to be liberated. We have given them two more days to leave the city," NTC fighter Abumuslim Abdu said.The country's new rulers have hesitated to employ heavy-handed tactics to seize Bani Walid, which is home to the Warfalla tribe, Libya's largest.
Libya's interim rulers have said that, along with taking control of pro-Gaddafi enclaves, capturing or killing the fugitive leader is a priority and only then could Libya be declared "liberated".
The US State Department said one of his sons, Saadi Gaddafi, who arrived in neighbouring Niger on Sunday on one of four convoys of senior Gaddafi loyalists to have crossed the southern Sahara desert frontier, was being held there.
"Our understanding is, like the others, he's being detained in a state guesthouse," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington on Tuesday.
Niger said on Monday it was keeping Saadi Gaddafi under surveillance but had not detained him.
While Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam, wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), have remained elusive, three Gaddafi officials were reported to be in NTC custody.
Abdel Hafid Zlitni, a former Central Bank governor and finance minister, was captured in Zawiyah, 30 miles west of Tripoli, NTC sources said on Tuesday.
They also said Mohammed Zwei, parliament speaker and a former ambassador to Britain, had been captured in the past week. Senior military officer Mustapha Kharroubi was also now under the NTC's watch, witnesses said.
Kharroubi is a veteran Gaddafi official and one of the few remaining officers who participated in the 1969 coup that brought Gaddafi to power. It is believed he handed himself over to NTC officials late last month but this could not immediately be confirmed.
Two of Gaddafi's sons and his only biological daughter have made their way to Algeria. One son is reported to have died in the war and three others, including Saif, are still on the run.