ZLITEN, Libya — Libya's rebels in this battered town are marshalling their forces for an assault on one of the last Gaddafi bastions, Bani Walid, about 95 miles southeast of the capital, Tripoli.
Bani Walid is now encircled by the rebels, and a battle appears imminent. It has become a strategic target for the rebels because it is reported that two of Gaddafi's sons, Saif and Saadi, have been there recently. A few days ago it was reported that Gaddafi himself was in Bani Walid, but now many say he has moved even further south, toward the border with Niger.
Bani Walid is one of four towns and cities that are still controlled by Gaddafi forces. The others are Jufra, Sabha; and Gaddafi's birthplace, Sirte.
Bani Walid is now surrounded on three sides by columns of rebel pickup trucks bristling with artillery and guns that have arrived from Misrata and Zliten to the northeast, and from Tripoli to the northwest.
It is not certain if the rebels will attack Monday, following a late afternoon breakdown in talks on Sunday, or whether they will stick to a National Transitional Council deadline a week from now. Even the small, armed groups from Zliten seem unsure what deadline they will follow, but most are sure they will have to fight sooner or later.
From the dusty crossroads of Bir Dufan, 43 miles (70 kilometers) from Bani Walid, rebel convoys from Misrata and Zliten passed each other, relaying information.
An old man who had fled Bani Walid with his family said that conditions inside the town were bad, and that people had very little food. Bombing from NATO planes had continued. But, he said, there were still lots of men willing to take up arms and fight.
These armed men are remnants of Gaddafi brigades, according to local rebel commanders. But it’s hard to tell whether this is the rebels' wishful thinking. It is not even certain how many Gaddafi men are in Bani Walid.
It is not known how many of Gaddafi's soldiers will fight, according to a local commander of revolutionary forces. Ramadan Hadia, 49, a former Gaddafi captain who defected early in the six-month revolution, said the revolutionaries use the arbitrary deadlines and feint announcements to sow fear among Gaddafi's loyalist soldiers, when in reality the negotiations are fluid.
He claimed the majority of people in Bani Walid support the revolutionaries. “You will see. It’s the same as what’s going to happen in Sirte,” Hadia said. "They (the people) are just waiting for when the revolutionary soldiers come.”
Rebels on the desert road outside Bani Walid echoed this idea, saying that they were waiting for an uprising within the city.
According to tribal tradition, revolutionaries from within Bin Walid will initiate the rebellion, said a Zliten commander, Safe Al Afi. Once they initiate, rebel forces outside will come to their assistance, he said.
Another grizzled revolutionary, originally from Benghazi, said hopefully Bani Walid will give up. Most of the rebels interviewed from Zliten said they also hope to avoid bloodshed, although they admit the assaults could start as soon as Monday.
Four Gaddafi soldiers who had switched to plain clothes were reportedly captured on the road from Zliten today. Rebels have taken the Loyalist 32nd Brigade Headquarters outside Bani Walid.