Libya's interim leader gave forces loyal to deposed ruler Moammar Gadhafi a four-day deadline on Tuesday to surrender towns they still control or face a bloody end to a war that the new leadership said has so far killed 50,000 people.
Anti-Gadhafi forces have converged on Sirte from east and west, but have stopped short of an all-out assault in hopes of arranging a negotiated surrender of Gadhafi's birth-place.
"By Saturday, if there are no peaceful indications for implementing this, we will decide this matter militarily. We do not wish to do so but we cannot wait longer," Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of Libya's interim council, told a news conference.
In Benghazi, headquarters of the anti-Gadhafi National Transtional Council during the uprising, military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Bani said the negotiations over Sirte involved tribal elders, not Gadhafi loyalists themselves.
The loyalists were thwarting the desire of most civilians to join the liberated areas, he said.
"Zero hour is quickly approaching," Bani said.
In an overnight phone call to AP headquarters in New York, Gadhafi's chief spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim said the rebels' ultimatium would be rejected.
"No dignified honorable nation would accept an ultimatum from armed gangs," he said. Ibrahim reiterated Gadhafi's offer to send his son al-Saadi to negotiate with rebels and form a transitional government.
The spokesman also claimed that a Tuesday afternoon missile attack on the regime stronghold of Sirte had killed 1,000 people and left scores more injured during public prayers marking Eid. He said 12 missiles were fired, possibly from airplanes seen circling overhead.
At forward positions of NTC forces, on the main coastal road some 60 miles west of Sirte, a Reuters correspondent saw little sign of military action on Tuesday.
Returning to normal
Rebel leaders insisted they are slowly restoring order in the war-scarred capital of Tripoli after a week of fighting, including deploying police and collecting garbage. Reporters touring Tripoli still saw chaotic scenes, including desperate motorists stealing fuel from a gas station.
In the capital's Souk al Jumma neighborhood, about 200 people pounded on the doors of a bank, demanding that it open. Civil servants said they were told they would receive a 250-dinar (about $200) advance on their salaries for the three-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which starts Wednesday in Libya.
Six months of fighting has left some 50,000 dead, one anti-Gadhafi commander said, an estimate that was hard to verify and which, he said, included many people who had gone missing.
"About 50,000 people were killed since the start of the uprising," Colonel Hisham Buhagiar, commander of the anti-Gadhafi troops who advanced on Tripoli out of the Western Mountains, known as Jebel Nafusa, told Reuters.
"In Misrata and Zlitan between 15,000 and 17,000 were killed and Jebel Nafusa took a lot of casualties. We liberated about 28,000 prisoners. We presume that all those missing are dead," he said. "Then there was Ajdabiyah, Brega. Many people were killed there too."
Gadhafi's whereabouts have been unknown since his foes seized his Tripoli compound on August 23, ending his 42-year rule after a six-month revolt backed by NATO and some Arab states.
Britain's Sky News, citing a young bodyguard of Gadhafi's son Khamis, said the leader had stayed in Tripoli until Friday when he left for the southern desert town of Sabha.
It quoted the captured 17-year-old as saying Gadhafi met Khamis, a feared military commander, at around 1:30 p.m. on Friday in a Tripoli compound that was under heavy rebel fire. Gadhafi had arrived by car and was soon joined by Aisha.
After a short meeting, they boarded four-wheel drive vehicles and left, the bodyguard told a Sky reporter, adding that his officer had told him: "They're going to Sabha."
Along with Sirte, Sabha is one of the main remaining bastions of pro-Gadhafi forces.
A NATO spokesman said the alliance, which has kept up a five-month bombing campaign, was targeting the city's approaches.
"Our main area of attention is a corridor... (leading up) to the eastern edge of Sirte," Colonel Roland Lavoie said.
Some anti-Gadhafi officers have reported that Khamis Gadhafi and former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi were both killed in a clash on Saturday. This has not been confirmed and the NATO spokesman said he had no word on Khamis's fate.
More NTC forces were heading for Bani Walid, a Gadhafi tribal stronghold 95 miles southeast of Tripoli.
"Three units were sent from Misrata toward Bani Walid this morning ... Our fighters are now 30 km from Bani Walid," said Mohammed Jamal, a fighter at a checkpoint on the road to the town. "Hopefully Bani Walid will also be liberated soon. Right now there are still many Gadhafi supporters there."
In the port city of Misrata, scene of heavy fighting earlier in the conflict, security forces were holding 332 former Gadhafi fighters in a school, where the captives sat on mattresses in the classrooms, some reading the Koran.
There was no evidence the men had been mistreated.
"These are Gadhafi soldiers who surrendered in battles around Misrata and Zlitan," said senior warder Haitham Mohammed. "We will eventually take them to court."
Some prisoners told Reuters, in the presence of the warder, that they had been tricked into fighting for Gadhafi.
"We were told we were fighting foreigners, al-Qaida, so we fought to liberate Misrata but when we came here we were surprised," said one, named Ali Sadiq Hamuda.
"I'm ashamed that I came here with wrong ideas but now I have discovered the truth -- the Gadhafi regime was bad."