NORTH OF BANI WALID/EAST OF SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Fighters sent by Libya's new rulers entered one of the last towns loyal to ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi on Friday and fought street-to-street battles in what could mark the start of a final showdown against bastions of Gaddafi control.
"They (anti-Gaddafi fighters) are in the north of the city fighting snipers. We have also entered from the east," National Transitional Council official Abdallah Kanshil said near the town of Bani Walid, 150 km (95 miles) southeast of Tripoli.
Bani Walid is one of Gaddafi's last bastions along with his hometown Sirte on the coast and the remote southern desert town of Sabha. Libya's interim rulers had set a Saturday deadline for Gaddafi holdout towns to surrender, but fighters near Bani Walid went in early to protect civilians, Kanshil said.
He estimated loyalist forces at around 600 men, saying pro-Gaddafi reinforcements must have recently arrived.
"People are very afraid, that is why we have to go in," he said. Troops were still hoping to avert "full-scale war" and had not received orders from central NTC command to enter the town, he said.
One NTC fighter had been killed so far and four wounded in Bani Walid while three Gaddafi fighters were killed and three wounded, Kanshil said. Seven Gaddafi loyalists were captured.
"They (NTC fighters) are engaging in low-level fighting with Gaddafi brigades, we are pushing," he said.
Earlier Gaddafi loyalists fired volleys of Grad rockets at fighters both north of Bani Walid and east of Sirte, Reuters witnesses said. The NTC said it had also sent convoys of fighters south into the desert towards Sabha.
The NTC had given pro-Gaddafi towns until Saturday to surrender peacefully or face attack in what could be some of the last battles in the six-month civil war. Previous deadlines had been extended to allow time for talks to avoid more bloodshed in a conflict believed to have killed thousands.
Ambulances streamed back and forth with casualties from near Bani Walid, and NTC fighters grabbed crates of rocket-propelled grenades and mortars and raced to the front.
In Teassain, 90 km east of Sirte, Reuters witnesses saw heavy rocket exchanges between NTC forces and Gaddafi fighters.
Officials at the National Transitional Council's Tripoli military headquarters told Reuters that between 100 and 150 vehicles had set off into the desert for Sabha on Friday. More would leave in convoy later in the day and into Saturday.
"There are people going from Jadu, from Zintan, from Tripoli, there is a mixture," NTC fighter Abu Aziz Selem told Reuters as he rushed out of the capital with a Kalashnikov assault rifle slung over each of his shoulders.
Families trickled out of Bani Walid before the fighting intensified, belongings crammed into their cars.
"I'm taking my family away from war," said Khalid Ahmouda, stopping his car briefly to speak to Reuters. "They are afraid because there will be a big fight today or tomorrow."
His veiled wife, Oum Abdurahman, leaned from a window, holding her baby son. "There's no power, no food, no water. Many people want to leave but have no fuel for their cars and Gaddafi forces are preventing people from leaving," she said.
"They fire in the air to terrorise people. Today we managed to leave," she said, adding her brother-in-law was among 11 people killed in a May 25 crackdown on anti-Gaddafi protests.
NTC officials at a checkpoint 30 km from Bani Walid said Gaddafi fighters had been captured. Reuters witnesses saw some men driven away with their hands tied behind them, as well as two bodies, said to be Gaddafi fighters, in a pick-up truck.
Smoke rose from the front line, now just five km from the town, as NATO planes roared overhead.
Muammar Gaddafi's location has been a mystery. In a defiant message broadcast on Thursday, he said he was still in Libya to lead the fight against what he called "rats" and "stray dogs" who had taken over the capital.
Joining the hunt for Gaddafi, Interpol issued arrest warrants for him, his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, all wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for suspected crimes against humanity.
Four of his top officials, including his air force commander and a general in charge of his forces in the south, were among a new group of Libyans who have fled to neighbouring Niger, officials in Niger said.
Niger, under pressure from the West and Libya's new rulers to hand over former Gaddafi officials suspected of human rights abuses, said it would respect its commitments to the Hague-based international court if Gaddafi or his sons arrived.
"We are signatories of the (ICC's) Rome Statute so they know what they are exposed to if they come," said the head of President Mahamadou Issoufou's cabinet, Massaoudou Hassoumi. As for the latest arrivals, he told Reuters: "We are taking them in on humanitarian grounds. No one has told us these are wanted people."
Most residents of Sabha, Bani Walid and Sirte are trapped and awaiting either a final battle or a surrender.
"We are not seeing many people leaving. How can they?" Khalid al-Riahi, an NTC field commander outside Sabha, told Reuters by telephone.
"They have no money, they can't afford to buy fuel, which is scarce and more expensive. The city is too remote to have regular supplies and the road is not safe at all".
Sabha, deep in the desert, has been cut off from the rest of the country since shortly after the fall of Tripoli and little information is available about the situation in the town of 100,000 people, home to many sub-Saharan African migrants.
The provisional government had just taken control of its first territory in the area for months, al-Riahi said.
He described Sabha as a base for pro-Gaddafi African mercenaries. The International Organization for Migration has called on all sides to protect migrants awaiting evacuation at a transit centre there, including women and children, mainly from Chad but also Eritrea, Niger and Nigeria.
Al-Riahi told Reuters there were serious shortages of fuel, food and medicine inside the town. A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva said one of its teams had delivered medical supplies to Sabha on Thursday.
Additional reporting by Christian Lowe, Alex Dziadosz, Mohammed Abbas and Mohammad Ben-Hussein in Tripoli, Barry Malone and Sylvia Westall in Tunis, Abdoulaye Massalatchi in Agadez, Nathalie Prevost in Niamey, John Irish in Paris, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Joseph Nasr in Berlin; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Peter Graff