Gaddafi's Forces Given Ultimatum

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. Libyan rebels are giving the loyalists of former strongman, Muammar Gaddafi, a choice. Gaddafi's forces can either surrender their last major strongholds or the rebels will begin an all-out military assault. And there's a deadline, Saturday. The leader of the Libyan Transitional Council warned today that the rebels will start with the town of Sirte, and if the pro-Gaddafi forces continue to hold out. Sirte is Gaddafi's birthplace and his last major bastion of support. The BBC's Jon Leyne is in Benghazi. Realistically, Jon, how likely is it that a peaceful surrender of Sirte will actually happen?

Jon Leyne: Well, they very much like it obviously here because the battle for it can be very, very messy. In fact, I believe in the hotel where I'm actually speaking to you from there actually conducting negotiations, presumably either on the mobile phones, which are just about working or on some kind of sat phones. And there's a representative from Sirte who supports the opposition and he's contacting elements within the town, within the city, tribal leaders. The problem there is that there's a lot of desperate people there now. There's a lot of Gaddafi loyalists who've fallen back on the town and they've been sort of pumped full of propaganda. Still there's kind sort of a news blackout there. They're just hearing a Gaddafi loyalist's radio station, there's no power there. They're hearing propaganda that if they surrender they'll have their wives and daughters raped, and they'll be attacked in their beds and so forth. So, it's not a very enticing prospect for them to give up, but a battle is also very, very not enticing prospect. You've got now increasing numbers of heavy weapons from the opposition inside lining up outside the city, and you've got the heavy weapons of the government or the former government inside the city.

Werman: So if cool heads don't prevail it sounds like a battle for Sirte could potentially be pretty violent.

Leyne: It could be street-to-street battle and that's not just Sirte. You're also talking about the other strongholds of Bani Walid, which is southeast of Tripoli, a smaller town, but still absolutely packed with loyalists, and perhaps the bigger nut to crack, which is the oasis of Sabha, which is right down in the south in the Sahara Desert. And that opposition tell us, the residents there have risen up and have joined the revolution, but they are surrounded by large elements of Gaddafi forces who fled down there, so again, a very tough nut to crack.

Werman: What is the significance of the rebels' Saturday deadline?

Leyne: Well, that will be the end of the [inaudible 2:14] of the holiday we're just going into. This is the end of Ramadan, the holy month of course. Ramadan ends tonight. And strangely, despite everything here they are observing the proprieties of the Muslim calendar, so they've been observing Ramadan and the fast and so forth, and that will end tonight. Then there's a three day holiday and so that will be the end of that feast holiday and then Saturday you know, back to business and that's when the attack will start if it has to.

Werman: And the fact that the rebels are even making this kind of ultimatum for a Saturday, that seems to show some confidence that they are in control.

Leyne: Oh, I think they know that. I think they're way more comfortable than even a week ago. You have the feeling the regime is just kind of slowly shrinking, and shrinking and shrinking. For example, I hear that Mutassin Gaddafi, one of his sons who is leading the military fight in Sirte, has now left there, left the fighting to his cousin, and he is kind of joining the Gaddafi family, who the opposition believe may be somewhere around Bani Walid, which is just southeast of Tripoli in a kind of mountain area there. So even if they lose Sirte they still might have the sub Sahara oasis in Bani Walid and there still might be a desperate last stand somewhere there.

Werman: Maybe Gaddafi loyalists feel that between now and Saturday they have little to lose and I'm wondering if maybe the NTC and the rebels are prepared for that?

Leyne: Yes, and they've been pulling everything out they can to get ready for the battle. And to some extent you know, there hasn't been the immediate military pressure on Sirte. It's been on the NATO attack, but not under direct opposition attack. And it may be that we don't get a surrender before Saturday, but then eventually when the attack really starts the pressure might finally be on and it may convince people that it is time to give up.

Werman: Jon, what is the Transitional Council saying about their pursuit of Gaddafi right now and his family?

Leyne: Well, Gaddafi himself probably somewhere they think, probably southeast of Tripoli. As far as his wife and two others sons and a daughter, they have of course, it's been confirmed, gone to Algeria. And after the really bitter words yesterday from the opposition, a rather more conciliatory tone today from the leadership saying basically they don't want a complete falling out with Algeria over this issue, and they believe in any case that those Gaddafi family members won't stay permanently in Algeria, and probably would move on to another country to try and seek more permanent refuge. So a more conciliatory turn here today about that.

Werman: The BBC's Jon Leyne speaking to us from Benghazi in Libya. Thanks again for your time, Jon.

Leyne: My pleasure.