TRIPOLI, Libya — In a fiery broadcast from hiding, Moammar Gadhafi warned Thursday that loyalist tribes in his main strongholds were armed and preparing for battle, a show of defiance hours after rebels extended a deadline for the surrender of the fugitive leader's hometown.
The rebels, who have been moving troops toward remaining Gadhafi bastions across Libya, had shifted the deadline for the town of Sirte in hopes of avoiding the bloodshed that met their attack on Tripoli.
"We want to save our fighters and not lose a single one in battles with Gadhafi's forces," said Mohammed al-Rajali, a spokesman for the rebel leadership in the eastern city of Benghazi. "In the end, we will get Sirte, even if we have to cut water and electricity" and let NATO pound it with airstrikes.
Rebel leaders were aware that Gadhafi was likely hiding in a stronghold of the powerful Warfalla tribe, Libya's biggest at about a million strong in a population of six million, NBC News producer Paul Nassar in Libya said.NBC's Richard Engel answers reader questions on 9/11, Libya
While the tribe is by no means solidly pro-Gadhafi — the dictator cracked-down on them in 1993 — many rebels are Warfalla themselves and asking them to bomb their own people would be difficult, Nassar said.
While the interim government "definitely feels that it is just a matter of time before they control this country, obstacles are starting to poke their heads out," Nassar said. "And one of the biggest problems is how tribal this country is."
World leaders meeting in Paris on Libya's future after Gadhafi said the NATO military operations would continue as long as needed.
Rebels have been hunting for the Libyan leader since he was forced into hiding after they swept into Tripoli on Aug. 20 and gained control of most of the capital after days of fierce fighting.
Opposition fighters, backed by NATO airstrikes, have been advancing toward three regime strongholds: Sirte; Bani Walid, 90 miles southeast of Tripoli; and Sabha, in the southern desert. All three places had been given a deadline of Saturday to surrender. While the deadline extension was officially only for Sirte, rebels said it would also include Bani Walid and Sabha.
There has been speculation that Gadhafi is hiding in one of those three towns.
Abdel Majid Mlegta, coordinator of the Tripoli military operations room, told Reuters "someone we trust" had said Gadhafi fled to Bani Walid with his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senoussi three days after Tripoli fell last week.
"They wanted to set up an operations room there and conduct aggressive operations against us," he said. "We have talked to notables from Bani Walid to arrest him and hand him over. They haven't responded. We are assessing our position."
The claims could not immediately be verified.Story: Tripoli divided as rebels jostle over power
Gadhafi's wife, Safiya, sons Mohammed and Hannibal, and daughter Aisha fled to Algeria on Monday, firm evidence that the longtime leader has lost his grip on the country. Aisha gave birth to her fourth child Tuesday in Algeria.
The Algerian newspaper El Watan reported that Gadhafi himself also sought refuge, but the Algerian president refused to take his phone calls. Algeria's foreign minister insisted Thursday that Gadhafi is not in Algeria. Asked on Europe-1 radio if Gadhafi could be given asylum, Mourad Medelci said, "I don't believe so."
Gadhafi: 'Let Libya burn'
Gadhafi was last heard on Aug. 25 in an audio recording calling on supporters to defend Tripoli.
In Thursday's message, Gadhafi said the tribes in Sirte and Bani Walid are armed and "there is no way they will submit." He called for continued resistance, warning "the battle will be long and let Libya burn."
But the rebels, who have effectively ended Gadhafi's rule, insist the fight is going in their favor.
"The regime is dying," rebel council spokesman Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga said late Wednesday, after two of Gadhafi's sons made conflicting statements on Arab television stations — with one vowing to fight until death and the other offering to negotiate a truce. "Gadhafi's family is trying to find an exit," Ghoga said. "They only have to surrender completely to the rebels and we will offer them a fair trial. We won't hold negotiations with them over anything."Story: Report: Gadhafi forces perched children on tanks to deter NATO attacks
Ghoga said Thursday that the rebels had extended the deadline for Sirte's surrender, giving the loyalist forces there one more week. "There are good indications that things are moving in the right direction," he said, including that the rebels have captured a city near Sirte.Video: Inside the lavish HQ of Gadhafi’s daughter
Rebels: Foreign minister captured
Ahmed Said, an adviser to the interior minister in the rebels' interim government, said rebel forces had captured Gadhafi's foreign minister. He did not identify him by name, but "can confirm that he is in custody." He offered no further details to confirm the capture.
A week ago, Foreign Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi told British broadcaster Channel 4 that Gadhafi's rule was over.
Thursday marks the coup against the monarchy of King Idris by 27-year-old Gadhafi and a group of military officers. Gadhafi took undisputed power and became a symbol of anti-Western defiance in a Third World recently liberated from its European colonial rulers. A brutal dictator, his regime was unchallenged until the uprising that began in February.
Rebels say they are carefully pulling together clues about Gadhafi's whereabouts from captured regime fighters and others, and learned earlier this week that Gadhafi and two of his sons — longtime heir-apparent Seif al-Islam and former special forces commander al-Saadi — were in the loyalist-controlled town of Bani Walid, said Ghoga. But, he added, it's not clear where they are now.
'They got rid of this nightmare'
Ahmed El-Gasir, of the Libya-focused Human Rights Solidarity nonprofit group, went to Tripoli on August 25 to witness historical moment and tend to his sister living in the besieged city. Until May of this year, he hadn’t set foot in Libya since 1995.
Despite Gadhafi’s missives, the mood in Tripoli was “fantastic,” with people feeling safe enough to come out to “Martyr’s Square” for Eid celebrations on Wednesday, El-Gasir said as he prepared to head once more over to that area. But there are many scars to be tended to.
“They are discovering the horrors of the last six months,” he said, later adding he believed there was still more to be revealed, “but, we have to face it.”
The transitional council faces a number of long-term challenges, too, he said, calling their performance “below acceptable” and criticizing them for not being better prepared for the post-Gadhafi era in Tripoli – in terms of food, water and fuel supplies. He said the capital has been without water for about the last week.
“People are tolerating all these hardships now because they are really happy that they got rid of this nightmare,” he said, later adding, "but I don’t know for how long.”
Msnbc.com's Miranda Leitsinger contributed to this report.
AP, Reuters and NBC News' Paul Nassar contributed to this report.