From hiding, Moammar Gadhafi denied rumors that he fled Libya, vowed "never to leave the land of his ancestors" and rallied followers to the fight in a new audio message broadcast Thursday on a loyalist TV channel.
The broadcast came amid conflicting statements about the fugitive Libyan dictator's whereabouts. Gadhafi, who ruled Libya for nearly 42 years, hasn't been seen in public for months, and has released only audio messages trying to rally his supporters and lash out at opponents.
In Thursday's five-minute-long address, aired on Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, a voice purportedly of Gadhafi denounced reports that he had fled to neighboring Niger and claimed he is still in Libya. He also blasted rebels who ousted him from power as "a bunch of mercenaries, thugs and traitors" and urged his follower to take up arms.
"We are ready to start the fight in Tripoli and everywhere else, and rise against them," Gadhafi said. "All of these germs, rats and scumbags, they are not Libyans, ask anyone. They have cooperated with NATO ... Gadhafi won't leave the land of his ancestors."
Gadhafi went into hiding after opposition fighters swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21. The rebels are still battling regime loyalists in three Gadhafi strongholds — Bani Walid, Sabha and Sirte.
Fresh clashes broke out early Thursday near Bani Walid, some 90 miles southeast of Tripoli. Shootings and loud explosions lasted for several hours, coming from about 18 miles outside the town, but subsided by daybreak.
Thousands of fighters have converged on areas outside Bani Walid and have threatened to attack if residents don't surrender by Saturday. Officials have said the town emerged as a focus because of the number of prominent regime loyalists believed to be inside.
"We will move into Bani Walid slowly. There was a message in Bani Walid from Gadhafi this evening," National Transitional Council (NTC) unit commander Jamal Gourji said as more truckloads of rebels arrived outside the dusty town of 100,000 on Wednesday.
"He was rallying his troops and calling on people to fight. He is hiding in a hole in the ground, like Iraq," he said, in a reference to late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, captured hiding in a hole nine months after he was toppled in 2003.
A commander of the Libyan fighters, Daw Saleheen, said Gadhafi's loyalists from inside Bani Walid tried to ambush one of the Libyan fighters' positions around the town early Thursday and the fighters clashed with them.
"They took advantage of our deadline and ongoing negotiations but they lost the chance when they tried to attack us," Saleheen said. He said one Gadhafi follower was killed in the clashes and that one Libyan fighter was wounded.
Outside the town on Wednesday residents leaving through a sun-scorched NTC checkpoint at the nearby settlement of Wishtata painted an increasingly desperate picture.
"People are terrorized," said Salah Ali, 39. "But many still support Gadhafi because they were paid by the regime, because many have committed crimes and are afraid of arrest."
Bani Walid is the homeland of Libya's largest tribe, the Warfala. In 1993, some Warfala attempted a coup against Gadhafi but were brutally crushed. The masterminds were executed, their homes demolished and their clans shunned while Gadhafi brought other members of the tribe to dominance, giving them powerful government jobs and lucrative posts.
Also Wednesday, a Tripoli military official said Gadhafi was cornered and the days before he is captured or killed are numbered, but another senior defense official contended that Libya's new rulers have no idea where the fugitive former leader is.
Hunting down Gadhafi would help seal the new rulers' hold on the country, and likely trigger the collapse of the remaining regime loyalists still fighting the former rebels.
Meanwhile, crates of mortar shells sit unguarded and empty boxes for missiles to blow up tanks and bring down airplanes are strewn about arms depots around the Libyan capital.
Former rebels say they took some ammunition for the fight against Gadhafi, but U.S. officials and others have expressed fears Libya's weapons could fall into the wrong hands.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Libya's new leaders to secure the ousted regime's weapons. "They still have a huge hill to climb," Clinton said. "But they are working with the international community to secure both chemical weapons stockpiles as well as conventional weapons."
However, visits by The Associated Press to weapons caches around Tripoli show that many remain poorly guarded and have already been heavily looted. About a dozen rebels wandered around one site the AP visited on Wednesday, where a large hangar was strewn with the boxes of missing weapons. Rebels at another site were leaving with a load of tank shells they said they were taking to a safe place for storage. They acknowledged, however, that they'd found the site unguarded.
It remains unclear how many weapons have been uncovered in Tripoli since Gadhafi's fall, said Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, who has been searching the city for them.
Lots of munitions appear to have been hidden in civilian buildings to avoid airstrikes by NATO, which bombed regime military targets under a United Nations mandate to protect civilians.
At one unguarded site, Bouckaert said he found 100,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Elsewhere, he found weapons caches hidden under fruit trees.
"The problem is that the locals usually find out first and by the time we arrive and we can get some guards there, a lot of the most dangerous weapons have already been taken away," he said.
A green sign at the entrance of a site the AP visited Wednesday said the facility belonged to the Libyan Education Ministry. The large hangar was strewn with hundreds of crates of mortars and tank shells.
Empty boxes of rifle ammunition and the anti-aircraft guns the former rebels fixed to the backs of trucks to fight Gadhafi's soldiers were scattered on the floor. Among them were dozens of long skinny boxes for missiles — all of them empty.
Salim Badi, a rebel who said his brigade came the day before to secure the site, said he'd been there 10 days earlier and found many more weapons.
He guessed the rebel fighters had taken the rifle and anti-aircraft ammunition, but doubted they'd taken the missiles.
"None of the rebels would take this stuff," he said, standing over an open box of tank shells. "These here, we don't even know what to do with them."