Rebels eye last Gaddafi strongholds
REBEL troops in Libya continued to skirmish around the towns of Bani Walid and Sirte last night, where isolated forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi are refusing to surrender.
But the country's new rulers have their eyes on a bigger and more significant prize. Some 400 miles to the south rebels, Predator drones and western special forces need to seize the city of Sabha, secure the desert and find their most elusive quarry: Gaddafi himself.
This battle will begin as early as this week. Somewhere near Sabha lurk the remnants of the Gaddafi family, protected by loyalist soldiers and fellow tribesmen.
"Our eyes on the ground know where he is," said General Ahmed Hisnawi, head of the rebels' southern command. "He has three to four thousand people around him. We will catch him."
Rebel commanders believe the ousted Libyan leader is moving around within a 40-square-mile patch of territory nearby. His most important surviving sons, Saif al-Islam and Mutassim, may be with or close to him.
The search centres on Sabha, a city of 200,000 people. As members of the rebels' Sabha Brigade set out from Tripoli at the weekend, residents gave an insight into what they will find if and when they arrive.
"Green flags fly on top of police stations and snipers are in position," said Alamin Abolmaji. Mercenaries roamed the streets, said another resident.
Supplies are low and there has already been looting, but that has done nothing to weaken the determination of the Gaddafi forces and the many loyalist citizens who are holding out against Libya's new government.
Sabha is the main base of the leader's tribe, the Gadadfa. It was a key link in his incipient nuclear weapons programme, with military bunkers built here, according to a 2004 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The city is already tense. "At night they cut off the electricity and gangs of mercenaries roam the streets," said one resident. He said some locals were anti-Gaddafi, but they were surrounded.
"Gaddafi forces control the eastern and western exits and have set up rockets pointing to the centre of the city, where many of the rebels are."
There have already been street skirmishes, with three rebels dying in a shoot-out on Wednesday. Non-combatants cower at home or venture out for decreasing supplies.
From Sabha also, located near several of Libya's desert oil fields, Gaddafi could make good his threat to "burn Libya". Mahmoud Ghnedi, a field officer, said one field, capable of producing 200,000 barrels a day, had been looted and would see production suffer for years.
The colonel is unlikely to make a stand himself, but use the cover of the fighting to plan his next move. No one tries to guess the outcome.
This is what makes the motives of the scores of old allies who have crossed to Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkino Faso so important: have they fled -- or are they now preparing the fightback?