Gaddafi loyalists in surrender talks as air strikes take toll
Forces loyal to Col Muammar Gaddafi were said to be in negotiations to surrender to rebel troops in what could be a significant turning point in the conflict, it was reported last night.
A rebel commander, the former Libyan air force Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani, told journalists in his first news conference that local mullahs in the contested town of Ajdabiya had been used to mediate talks.
Gaddafi loyalists have been under pressure after they have been targeted by accurate coalition air strikes over the past six days outside the town that stands at a junction on the road to Benghazi in the east of the country.
"Some of the Ajdabiya militias have asked to surrender to be left alone and to go back home," said Col Bani, who was dressed in military uniform. "We are trying to negotiate with these people in Ajdabiya because we are almost sure that they have lost contact with their headquarters," he added.
Lightly armed rebel forces are locked in a stalemate with the much better armed Gaddafi forces, but the government troops appear unwilling to advance their tanks on to open roads where they could be targeted by air strikes.
Col Bani, speaking in Benghazi, said his forces were talking to Gaddafi troops via an imam in Ajdabiya, who had approached the government forces and was serving as a mediator.
The news conference was Col Bani's first as the new face of the military council that is charged with overseeing operations by rebel forces seeking to overthrow Gaddafi.
It could also suggest that some cohesion is being brought to the rebel army which has previously lacked coherent leadership.
As he spoke, Gaddafi's forces continued to attack the strategically crucial city of Misurata with tanks entering the populated areas to avoid air strikes. It is now becoming clear that the port city, 150 miles east of Tripoli, is the key battlefield with its proximity to the capital, meaning the rebels could use it as a launch pad for an offensive.
Gaddafi's forces have stepped up their attacks on Libya's third largest city with a population of 300,000 as they recognise its strategic importance.
In response, Western air strikes hit armour on the outskirts of the rebel-held area, but tanks inside the city remain there and have not been hit.
At least 109 people have been killed in Misurata and more than 1,300 wounded in a week of attacks by Gaddafi loyalists, a doctor said.
William Hague, Britain's Foreign Secretary, told the House of Commons that the citizens of Misurata and Ajdabiya were facing "appalling danger" with Gaddafi's forces intent on "a massacre".
"Coalition air strikes are helping to relieve the pressure on its citizens," he said.
Col Bani said rebel troops in Misurata and Zintan had managed to kill an estimated 120 government forces during battles yesterday. (© Daily Telegraph, London)