EAST OF BANI WALID, Libya (Reuters) - Their guns trained on the barren desert and eyes fixed on the hazy horizon, anti-Gaddafi fighters patrolling the edge of the ousted leader’s last stronghold in Libya say they are ready for their final battle.
“Where is Gaddafi? Where is the rat? We will catch him,” said Bashar Ali, an officer with the forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) as he steered his pickup truck deeper into the desert towards Bani Walid, a town where Muammar Gaddafi is believed to be hiding.
An important tribal stronghold southeast of the capital Tripoli, Bani Walid is one of Gaddafi’s last remaining bastions of power in a country now largely under NTC control.
Along with the coastal city of Sirte further east and Sabha in the south, Bani Walid lies inside a vast triangle of desert land where support for Gaddafi has been traditionally strong.
For now, with Libya’s new rulers hoping to negotiate their peaceful surrender, NTC forces massing at Bani Walid’s gates are locked in an uneasy standoff with a town still under the spell of Gaddafi’s rule.
At the last dusty outpost east of Bani Walid, NTC fighters said they engaged in almost daily skirmishes with Gaddafi loyalists scouting the area but had yet to receive orders from their commanders to advance.
The NTC fighters take turns to man watch towers, training their binoculars into the desert for any sign of approaching vehicles.
Kicking up columns on dust, NTC convoys make daily incursions into the area but avoid open hostilities unless provoked, they said.
Yet, no one is firmly in control of the vast swathe of land stretching between Bani Walid, home to Libya’s biggest and most important tribe, the Warfalla, and Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast.
“Right now we are waiting. Everyone is ready to fight. Sirte will be liberated first, then Bani Walid,” said Ibrahim Obaid, an NTC fighter.
The NTC fighters said they had 168 units — or about 16,000 men — deployed in the area around their regional stronghold of Misrata, but conceded that any fight for Bani Walid or Sirte would be tough.
“It’s not about the numbers. Bani Walid is surrounded by hills, and Gaddafi’s men have tanks and Grads (rocket launchers) deployed on hilltops. Sirte will be equally difficult,” said Ismail Sabhi, an NTC unit commander.
Bani Walid has had its supply lines severed by NTC checkpoints from the north, east and west. Yet there were no signs of its imminent surrender.
NTC fighters said Gaddafi loyalists broadcasted daily radio appeals calling on civilians there to take up weapons and fight.
On Thursday, a convoy of fighters ventured out into the desert on a reconnaissance mission, inspecting an abandoned Gaddafi-era air defence installation destroyed by NATO earlier in the war.
Khalil Shelbi, an NTC unit commander, said the area was filled with Gaddafi militiamen, and his fighters watched out nervously as they patrolled the ruins of the once-top secret, Russian-built facility.
The Burkan base — one of Libya’s four such facilities equipped with Soviet surface to air missiles — appeared frozen in time, its rusty missile launchers still intact on a rocky hillside.
An antiquated missile was left abandoned in the scorching sun.
The facility was bombed by NATO earlier in the war and abandoned by Gaddafi’s retreating loyalists about two weeks ago as rebels pushed further west.
Inside one of its crumbling operation centres, its walls crushed by the force of the NATO air strike, Russian-language instruction manuals were scattered on the floor.
Blackened copies of Ukrainian and Russian passports were still stacked up neatly on a shelve — a legacy of Gaddafi’s once cosy military ties with former Soviet states.
“There is no need for weapons like this any more,” said Shelbi, a former Gaddafi officer who once served at the base after receiving military training in the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
“Libya is a new country. It will have no enemies.”
(Editing by Giles Elgood and Andrew Heavens)