TRIPOLI, Aug 28 (Reuters) – NATO warplanes bombed Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte on Sunday as forces opposed to the fallen strongman closed in on his last major bastion of support.
The fugitive Gaddafi’s exact whereabouts where still not known and it was possible he was still in hiding in Tripoli five days after it fell to rebel forces and his 42-year-old reign collapsed.
In the capital, the rebel leadership sought to establish control after days of confusion and sporadic skirmishing with the remnants of Gaddafi’s forces.
But the stench of rotting bodies and burning garbage still hung over the city and food, water and other supplies were running short, indications that despite the euphoria of victory, plenty of challenges lay ahead.
A NATO spokesman in Brussels said that foreign warplanes — which have played a crucial role in backing the rebels during the six-month civil war — had struck at Sirte over the past three days including Sunday.
“We’re paying close attention to what’s happening in Sirte because we know that there are remnants of the regime that are there,” he said.
Libyan forces also closed in Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace, from the ground and said they would seize it by force if negotiations for its surrender failed.
One commander said his forces were within 100 km (60 miles) of Sirte from the east and others were advancing from the west.
Reuters reporter Maria Golovnina, travelling east from Tripoli along the coastal highway, saw tank transporters carrying Soviet-designed T-55 tanks in the direction of Sirte.
Rebels in Misrata, about 250 km west of Sirte, said they had seized about 150 brand new Gaddafi tanks from an abandoned military base in Zlitan and were preparing to deploy them if Gaddafi supporters in Sirte did not surrender.
Jamal Tunally, a rebel military commander in Misrata, told Reuters: “The front line is 30 km from Sirte. We think the Sirte situation will be resolved peacefully, God willing.”
“Now we just need to find Gaddafi. I think he is still hiding underneath Bab al-Aziziyah like a rat,” said Tunally, referring to Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli which was overrun by rebels on Tuesday.
Colonel Ahmed Bani, military spokesman of the National Transitional Council (NTC) in the eastern city of Benghazi, said the negotiations over Sirte would go on as long as necessary but either way it would liberated in “a matter of days”.
Gaddafi, 69, is on the run and the fear among his foes is that he intends to lead an insurgency against them.
NTC officials also rejected any idea of talks with Gaddafi, saying he was a criminal who must be brought to justice.
“We did not negotiate when we were weak, and we won’t negotiate now that we have liberated all of Libya,” NTC information minister Mahmoud Shammam told a news conference.
The Associated Press earlier quoted Gaddafi’s spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, as saying Gaddafi was still in Libya and wanted to discuss forming a transitional government with the NTC.
NTC officials say Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam and his spy chief should be tried in Libya, although they are wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
The NTC and its Western backers are acutely aware of the need to prevent Libya collapsing into the kind of chaos that plagued Iraq for years after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
The de facto government, whose leaders plan to move to Tripoli from Benghazi this week, is trying to impose security, restore basic services and revive the energy–based economy.
But in the aftermath of victory, many corpses have been found, some of slain Gaddafi soldiers, others the victims of killings in cold blood.
A Libyan official said 75 bodies had been found at the Abu Salim hospital, which was caught up in heavy fighting, and another 35 corpses were found at the Yurmuk hospital.
The possibility that rebel fighters executed captured Gaddafi soldiers would pose an image problem for the NTC.
Military spokesman Bani said there was concern for the fate of 40,000 prisoners who he said had been detained by Gaddafi’s forces and who were still unaccounted for. It was possible some were being held in underground bunkers in Tripoli that rebels had so far been unable to locate, he said.
In good omens for economic recovery, officials said a vital gas export pipeline to Europe had been repaired and Libya’s biggest refinery had survived the war intact.
In the west, Tunisian authorities reopened the main border crossing into Libya, restoring a supply route for Tripoli, after Gaddafi forces were driven out on Friday.
That should help relieve a looming humanitarian crisis in the city, where food, drinking water and medicines are scarce.
Trucks loaded with food and other goods were already moving across the Ras Jdir crossing towards Tripoli, about two hours’ drive away.
The streets of the capital were quiet after sporadic overnight gunfire and explosions in a city.
Some residents ventured out to hunt for water, food and fuel. And in Martyrs’ Square, known as Green Square in the Gaddafi era, traffic police reappeared in crisp white uniforms, directing cars amid a sea of bullet casings.
“I came back to work on Friday. Life is beginning to come back to normal,” said one policeman, Mahmoud al-Majbary, 49.”
Tripoli residents queued for bread or scoured grocery shops for food. Many took a stoical view of their plight.
“This is a tax we pay for our freedom,” said Sanusi Idhan, a lawyer waiting to buy food.
Aymen Mohammed poured water into plastic containers for his neighbours. “There are many people here who don’t have water so we’re filling the bottles from our well,” he said.
The NTC issued messages urging electricity workers to get back to work and efforts to pay the salaries of public sector workers were underway.
The NTC hopes to gain access soon to hundreds of millions of dollars of Libyan assets frozen abroad. It also needs to get oil and gas revenue, normally 95 percent of exports, flowing again.
Bani said the gas pipeline to Europe had been repaired and gas woulod start flowing again soon, he said.
Libya’s largest oil refinery at Ras Lanuf on the Mediterranean coast is intact despite fighting that had raged nearby and staff are preparing to restart operations at the 220,000 barrel per day plant, the general manager told Reuters.