Libya's rebels say they have more than 10,000 fighters surrounding Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte and are waiting for the order to attack.
The rebel officials say that order will be given this Saturday. But over the next few days, they will try to negotiate the peaceful surrender of Sirte, the last major bastion of Gadhafi's forces.
Rebel military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani told reporters in the eastern city of Benghazi that the zero hour was fast approaching for Sirte. NATO warplanes have destroyed dozens of military targets in the town in recent days. And rebel leaders say negotiations for a peaceful surrender have stalled, while the rebel fighters are getting restless.
"In the end, they cannot leave any areas of Libya still under the Gadhafi regime," said Shamsiddin Ben-Ali, the chief spokesman for the rebels' Transitional National Council. "All of Libya, every inch of Libya, has to be liberated."
Still, the rebels are hoping that the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan will provide a cooling-off period and produce a peaceful end to the standoff. That holiday, called Eid al-Fitr, begins in Libya on Wednesday.
If no agreement is reached, the alternative could be a bloodbath given that Gadhafi's forces are firmly entrenched in Sirte, the rebels said.
Civilians Urged To Leave
That's why the rebels are encouraging residents to leave the city, said Ben-Ali, the council spokesman.
"Some have been able to get out," he said. But, he added, "the military forces inside Sirte are at the same time preventing [their departure] simply because they want to use them in the end as human shields."
People in Sirte could not be reached because their cellphones do not connect to those in Benghazi. Gadhafi shut down the eastern phone network after the uprising that began in February.
Nor have rebels been able to use the airwaves to get a message of peace and reconciliation to Sirte residents, according to the rebels' deputy interior minister, Mustafa al-Sagazly:
"The media of Gadhafi has brainwashed the people there and has informed them that we are coming to kill them, steal their property and rape their women and destroy the whole city," he said.
Nevertheless, he was among the rebel leaders who told NPR that two of the three main tribes in Sirte appear willing to negotiate, although they aren't the ones with the heavy guns.
Some members of the Gaddafa tribe, from which Gadhafi hails, are also willing to talk. But the rebels have rejected their demands for amnesty and inclusion in the new government.
"We don't want violence, we don't want revenge, that's true, but meanwhile we cannot really accept any dictation from Gadhafi's tribe," said Fathi Baja, a senior member of the rebel council.
The rebels say they are willing to accept compromises that would allow Sirte residents to set up a local council. The residents, including Gadhafi's tribe, may also get to keep some lighter weapons, including their personal guns.
But rebel leaders say that through negotiations or battle, Sirte must come under rebel control. The city sits on the coast between the country's two largest cities, Tripoli and Benghazi, and it's also holding up rebel efforts to capture towns like Sabha in the south, which sits atop Libya's main water supply.
Back in Benghazi, rebel fighters returning for a brief respite from the front lines say they are ready to take Sirte this weekend. One of them, Col. Jamal Muhammed Zuweyy, said the fighters are hoping for a peaceful surrender. But Zuweyy says if the rebels have to go into Sirte, he's confident the battle won't last more than a day.
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