“It’s full steam ahead right now,” said Abdulrahman Busin, a spokesman for the rebel military.
Some rebels were reported to be inside Bani Walid, a small city 90 miles southeast of the capital, Tripoli. The attack on Surt, one of Libya’s larger cities, had just begun and the rebels were still on the outskirts, Mr. Busin said. They are two of only four communities still under the control of forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi.
Rebel officials said they opened the campaign on Bani Walid early after peace negotiations failed and loyalist forces opened fire on rebel positions. The two sides were said to be fighting outside the city and in close-quarters, street-to-street fighting inside, The Associated Press reported, citing rebel officials. “Snipers are scattered over the hills and the rebels want to chase them,” a rebel spokesman told The A.P. “There is hand-to-hand combat. The population is afraid so we have to go and protect civilians.”
As for the rebel attack on Surt, Mr. Busin said, “They may have pushed forward a few hours early simply because it was a strategic advantage.” But the rebels were forced to pull back after encountering fierce resistance, The A.P. said.
Bani Walid is the home of the country’s largest tribe, the Warfallah, which had previously been a strong supporter of Colonel Gaddafi’s. It is believed that some of his former officials may have taken refuge there. Surt is on the main coastal highway 200 miles east of the capital. Loyalist forces holding it have effectively been able to cut the country in two between east and west.
The fighting came after Interpol issued arrest warrants for Colonel Gaddafi and two others on Friday and after reports came from Niger of a new convoy of high-ranking Libyan officials arriving across the desert.
In Lyon, France, Interpol said in a statement that it had issued so-called red notices calling for the arrests of Colonel Gaddafi, his son Seif al-Islam el-Gaddafi and Abdullah al-Senussi, the chief of the former leader’s intelligence agency.
There was no suggestion that Colonel Gaddafi or the two other wanted men were known to be among those who arrived in the latest convoy to Niger. The country has been under intense international pressure to turn over any former officials of the Gaddafi government who arrive there.
On Friday, an official in Niger said that the government would respect the Interpol notices and hand over the fugitives should they cross the border, Reuters reported.
Despite an international manhunt, the whereabouts of Libya’s top officials have been uncertain since rebels took Tripoli last month. Since then, Colonel Gaddafi and his son have taunted the transitional rebel government in audio messages and urged their loyalists to continue fighting.
The Interpol notices, which were requested by the International Criminal Court at The Hague based on allegations of war crimes committed by the three men, require any of Interpol’s 188 member nations to arrest the suspects and turn them over to the court.
Among the member nations is Niger, which borders Libya on the south and has received a number of convoys of loyalist officials fleeing overland. So far, no high-ranking figures in the former government have been confirmed to be accompanying them.
On Friday, 14 Gaddafi loyalist officials arrived in the northern Niger city of Agadez, including Gen. Ali Kana, who is said to be a Tuareg tribesman in charge of Colonel Gaddafi’s southern troops, according to a Reuters report. Tuareg tribesmen, who live on both sides of the Libya-Niger border, have been major supporters of the Gaddafi government.
The group also included another general, Ali Sharif al-Rifi, the commander of the Libyan Air Force, and two other top officials, who were said to be staying at the Etoile du Ténéré hotel in Agadez, according to the news agency. The hotel is said to be owned by Colonel Gaddafi.
Niger’s justice minister, Marou Amadou, confirmed that the two generals were in Agadez and were “being well guarded” but were not “in a building belonging to the state.”
Colonel Gaddafi “is a fugitive whose country of nationality and the International Criminal Court want arrested and held accountable for the serious criminal charges that have been brought against him,” Interpol’s secretary general, Ronald K. Noble, said in a written statement. “Interpol will cooperate with and assist the I.C.C. and Libyan authorities represented by the interim Transitional National Council of Libya” to apprehend him.
Arresting Colonel Gaddafi “is a matter of time,” the Interpol statement said, quoting the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. Mr. Moreno-Ocampo had requested the Interpol action on Thursday.
Late last month, two of Colonel Gaddafi’s sons and his second wife fled to Algeria, which granted them asylum on humanitarian grounds, leading to vigorous criticism from Libyan rebel leaders. Algeria is also one of Interpol’s member countries, as are all of Libya’s neighbors.
Residents of Tripoli gathered in the late afternoon to march to Martyrs’ Square on Friday night in protest of people who had supported Colonel Gaddafi until the very end and then switched sides, saying that they did not want such people to retain or gain positions in government.
“Where, where is he?” chanted hundreds of doctors and nurses in hospital scrubs and the colors of the Libyan flag, taunting Colonel Gaddafi as they marched toward the square.
The doctors carried signs with pictures of other doctors and medical workers killed during the rebellion. They also objected to the Transitional National Council’s minister of health, Naji Barakat. They said that he was a holdover from Colonel Gaddafi’s time and that he was still acting as authoritarian as before. Mr. Barakat could not be reached for comment, but transitional council officials have said that many of Colonel Gaddafi’s officials had been retained until a new government had been formed to keep essential services functioning. NYT/