Ex-rebels claim control of Libya's vast south
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BENGHAZI, Libya -- After fierce battles in desert towns and oases, revolutionary forces now control most of Libya's vast south, making it harder for Moammar Gadhafi's loyalists to flee into neighboring Niger, Chad and Algeria, southern representatives to the interim ruling authority said Thursday.
They said 18 revolutionary fighters died in the final battle for the deep south's largest city, Sabha, and that pro-Gadhafi resistance consisted now of a few last pockets of holdouts.
A CNN crew traveling with the former rebels found a warehouse near Sabha that contained thousands of barrels of yellowcake uranium, which can be refined for use in nuclear weaponry.
United Nations atomic energy monitors said the Gadhafi regime had declared the site, and that it had been inventoried. Ensuring that the site is secure now falls to Libya's interim authorities until the area is stable enough for inspectors to visit, said Gill Tudor, a spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
Even as the revolutionaries declared victory in the south, they were unable to overcome fierce resistance at two Gadhafi loyalist strongholds farther north. Forces attempting to seize the desert town of Bani Walid and Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast were stalled by rough terrain, poor supply lines and the fact that Gadhafi brigades that were routed from other areas are now concentrated in the two cities.
Meanwhile Thursday, the Tunisian government announced the arrest of Col. Gadhafi's former prime minister, Al Baghdad al Mahmoudi, on charges of illegally entering the country. He and two other Libyans were found without visas near Tunisia's border with Algeria, according to news reports. The three were to appear before a Tunisian judge.
Seizing Bani Walid and Sirte would allow the revolutionary forces to declare their control over all of Libya, paving the way for the declaration of a caretaker government to fill the power vacuum left by the Gadhafi regime's collapse.
Col. Ahmed Bani, the military spokesman for revolutionary forces, said at least 18 revolutionaries fighting in Sirte were killed in the past few days. He said commanders had reported that some of the men had been chained to trucks and dragged on the ground until they were dead. Col. Bani said anti-Gadhafi forces were about 10 miles from the city center.
The former rebels are "controlling the military air base and the airport, but there's still resistance," Col. Bani said by phone from Tripoli. "Sooner or later, we'll take it."
In Bani Walid, he said, progress has been slow because of sniper nests in the mountains overlooking a main approach to the city. Gadhafi forces also had poured petroleum and a lubricant used in oil refineries on roads into the city, he said. The former rebels' vehicles can get no traction, leaving them at risk of being pinned under sniper fire with their wheels spinning if they attempt to enter. He said the forces were looking at alternative routes.
In response to reports that the former rebels were running low on ammunition and suffered from a lack of central command, Col. Bani said without elaboration that "each brigade's circumstances are different."
A panel of southern representatives to the National Transitional Council, Libya's top revolutionary body, said in Benghazi that revolutionaries had captured several high-value figures from the former regime, including Col. Gadhafi's southern intelligence chief. They said the prisoners were undergoing "preliminary questioning" and were being treated well.
The focus now, the delegates said, was on a worsening humanitarian crisis in towns sealed off months ago to prevent Gadhafi forces from entering. A cluster of southern towns have had no power or potable water for more than two months, said Ali Kulama Mohamed, transitional council representative for the town of Murzuk.
First Published September 23, 2011 12:00 am