TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Muammar Gaddafi, driven into hiding by his foes, on Thursday urged his supporters to fight on, even as Libya’s new interim rulers met world leaders to discuss reshaping a nation torn by 42 years of one-man rule and six months of war.
“Let it be a long battle. We will fight from place to place, from town to town, from valley to valley, from mountain to mountain,” Gaddafi said in a message broadcast on Arab satellite television channels.
“If Libya goes up in flames, who will be able to govern it? Let it burn. They don’t want to rule Libya. They cannot rule it as long as we are armed. We are still armed. We will fight in every valley, in every street, in every oasis, and every town.”
He added: “How can we give ourselves up again? Are we women surrendering ourselves to our husbands or what?”
The fugitive leader was speaking on the anniversary of the military coup that toppled King Idris and brought him to power in 1969 when he was a 27-year-old army captain.
There have been conflicting reports about Gaddafi’s location since his Tripoli compound was overrun on August 23.
A senior military commander of the interim National Transitional Council (NTC) said Gaddafi was in a desert town outside Tripoli, along with his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, planning a fightback.
All three fugitives are wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.
Abdel Majid Mlegta, coordinator of the Tripoli military operations room, told Reuters “someone we trust” had said Gaddafi had fled to Bani Walid, 150 km (95 miles) southeast of the capital, three days after Tripoli fell.
An Algerian newspaper said Gaddafi was in the border town of Ghadamis and had tried to call Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to appeal for refuge. Bouteflika would not take the call, even though Algeria gave sanctuary to Gaddafi’s wife and three of his children when they crossed the border on Monday.
The NTC, trying to mop up pro-Gaddafi forces, extended by a week a Saturday deadline for the surrender of the coastal city of Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace, and other hold-out towns.
“That means there’s progress in the negotiations,” said Mohammed Zawawi, an NTC spokesman in the eastern city of Benghazi. “We’re not in a rush to get in to Sirte. It has no economic importance and we’re not going to lose casualties for it. We can cut supplies and wait, even more than a week.”
The extension follows a peace feeler from one of Gaddafi’s sons, Saadi, on Wednesday, even though it was contradicted by his elder brother Saif al-Islam and, now, by his father himself. The war may not be over until Gaddafi is killed or captured, but Libyans are keen to move on.
Libya’s new leaders gathered with their foreign allies in Paris to coordinate political and economic reconstruction. Some participants will also be jostling for a share in postwar contracts in the wealthy North African oil and gas producer.
Russia recognised the NTC before the conference opened.
Some in Libya suggest that Tripoli may slight nations like Russia and China in favour of stalwarts of the intervention such as Britain, France, the United States and Qatar.
China’s official People’s Daily newspaper told the West to let the United Nations lead reconstruction in Libya and said Beijing would defend its economic stake there.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he sought a closer trade relationship between Libya and Europe and said Britain would not miss out on its share of contracts. “We won’t be left behind,” he told reporters before the Paris talks.
Given sensitivities among Muslims after Western military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, British Prime Minister David Cameron was at pains to stress that Libyans were in charge of their own fate: “This is not being dropped out of a NATO aeroplane, this is being delivered by the Libyan people,” he said. “It is their revolution, it is their change.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the conference the new government should be given Libya’s seat at the United Nations and needed international support: “The work does not end with the end of an oppressive regime,” she said.
“Winning a war offers no guarantee of winning the peace that follows. What happens in the coming days will be critical.”
She also urged the new leaders to work with those who once supported Gaddafi — something the prime minister in the ousted government, al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi, said he was also doing, according to a report by al-Arabiya television.
Eager to meet immediate civilian needs, the NTC is expected to push for rapid access to billions of dollars in foreign-held Libyan assets frozen under U.N. sanctions on Gaddafi.
The United Nations has already authorised the release of more than $5 billion in previously frozen assets held in the United States, Britain and France.
It may be hard to get reconstruction going and persuade foreign investors to return to Libya as long as Gaddafi remains at large and the NTC is not in full control of the country.
Mlegta, the NTC military leader, said Gaddafi wanted to set up a base in Bani Walid to orchestrate attacks. Appeals to notables in the town to hand him over had gone unanswered.
He said Ali al-Ahwal, Gaddafi’s coordinator for tribes, was also in Bani Walid, a stronghold of the powerful Warfalla tribe, Libya’s biggest at about a million strong among a population of six million, but by no means solidly pro-Gaddafi.
“We are capable of ending the crisis but military action is out of the question right now,” Mlegta said. “We cannot attack this tribe because many of our brigades in Benghazi and Zintan are from Bani Walid. The sons of Bani Walid hold the key.”
NTC fighters said on Tuesday they were 30 km from Bani Walid. NATO air strikes hit several rocket launchers near Sirte on Wednesday, as well as an ammunition storage facility and a military command post near Bani Walid, a NATO spokesman said.
With Gaddafi driven from power, the Friends of Libya conference in Paris gives the NTC its first platform to address the world. Its chairman, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, was outlining plans for a new constitution, elections within 18 months and ways to avoid any descent into postwar Iraq-style bloodletting.
“We have to help the National Transitional Council because the country is devastated, the humanitarian situation is difficult and there’s a lack of water, electricity and fuel,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on RTL radio.
Tripoli has enough fuel for now and food is starting to get through, but there is no end in sight to its water shortage, according to the European Union’s humanitarian office (ECHO).
Britain flew 40 tonnes of freshly printed bank notes, many bearing Gaddafi’s image, into Libya on Wednesday to help pay public workers and replenish bank cash machines.
The 280 million Libyan dinars, officially worth about $234 million, is part of a consignment worth about $1.5 billion blocked by Britain in March after he cracked down on protests.
EU sanctions on six Libyan ports, several oil firms and banks will end on Friday, EU officials said.