MEMBERS of the Gaddafi family were believed to have fled the town of Bani Walid yesterday, after residents raised rebel flags in a show of defiance.
Rebel leaders in the nearby town of Tahouna said loyalist convoys had been seen leaving military bases before an assault on the town, expected within days.
Some were believed to be the remnants of the Khamis Brigades, which were controlled by Muammar Gaddafi's son Khamis until he was apparently killed in a rebel ambush nine days ago.
"There was a surprise movement this afternoon," Tripoli's rebel military commander, Abdul Hakim Belhaj, said. "The Gaddafi brigades appear to have abandoned their checkpoints. The radio station is under the control of the revolutionary people, and flags have been put up on a lot of the high buildings in Bani Walid." Belhaj said the approaches to the town were not yet fully secure, but estimated that 90 per cent of Bani Walid was now backing the rebels. However Moussa Ibrahim a spokesman for Muammar Gaddafi dismissed the suggestions on Saturday and insisted that tribal leaders there were still loyal.
Three of Gaddafi's sons -- Mutassim, Saif al-Islam and Saadi -- are believed to have been staying in the military bases, while the Warfalla tribe, which controls Bani Walid, debated their future. Rebel officials in Tahouna and Tripoli had told tribal leaders that the town would soon be attacked if the tribe did not surrender the Gaddafis.
The impetus for yesterday's apparent departure seemed to be a local uprising, which saw green loyalist flags torn down and regime checkpoints on Bani Walid's outskirts evacuated. It was not immediately clear whether the uprising was localised to one area, or had spread to other parts of Bani Walid.
Rebels were planning to send forays into town to test the mood of the people, who had largely been loyal to the ousted Gaddafi regime since the fall of Tripoli. They had expected to confront between 500 to 600 loyalist soldiers with about 2,000 rebels.
Residents had, in recent days, given the leaders of Tahouna's rebel brigade regular updates on the whereabouts of Saif al-Islam and Mutassim, suggesting cracks in tribal solidarity. Tribal leaders had earlier told rebels they felt bound by custom to protect their guests.
If military units carrying the Gaddafi sons have fled, they have few places to run to. The main road south-west is controlled by rebels after about 60 miles, meaning it is likely they would be forced to take a more difficult escape route through barren landscapes.
More troubling for any overland escape is that it would be detectable by Nato surveillance aircraft, which could track every move. Nato continues to play an active role in Tripoli and in the hunt for Gaddafi, with the RAF bombing six targets in Bani Walid over the past week.
Gaddafi is believed to have spent time in the town eight days ago before heading south. His whereabouts are unknown, but Nato and rebel officials believe he is hiding in an area from the southern town of Sabha to the Algerian border -- on the fringes of the Sahara desert, where he can count on the protection of Tuareg tribesmen.