The chief of Libya's former rebels has arrived in the capital of Tripoli, in a long-awaited gesture meant to show he's in charge and consolidating control over the vast country.
Mustafa Abdul-Jalil was given a boisterous red carpet welcome Saturday on the tarmac of a Tripoli air force base. Hundreds of fighters and officials in suits crowded around him, flashing victory signs and shouting "God is great" as he descended from a plane.
Meanwhile, in a new audio message from hiding, Moammar Gadhafi called on his followers to rise up and fight, saying "this is the zero hour."
Gadhafi's latest message was broadcast repeatedly on the town's radio station Saturday night.
In it, he urged supporters to fight and says those who don't will go to hell.
Revolutionary forces entered Tripoli on Aug. 21, capping an offensive that ousted Gadhafi. Abdul-Jalil's prolonged absence from the capital had raised questions about the former rebels' ability to take charge.
Anti-Gadhafi forces control much of Libya, but have had trouble driving loyalists out of three strongholds.
Volunteer fighters poured in from the Libyan capital and other towns held by the former rebels on Saturday to join what they expect to be the final battle for Bani Walid, one of Moammar Gadhafi's last remaining strongholds.
After a weeklong standoff over a peaceful surrender of the town, the Libyan fighters on Friday launched a two-pronged assault on Bani Walid that soon dissolved into street fighting.
Revolutionary forces had initially given tribal leaders and pro-Gadhafi loyalists in Bani Walid until Saturday to surrender, but said they were drawn into fighting on Friday night after former regime fighters attacked with rockets.
NATO denied media reports on Saturday that it had told forces loyal to Libya's Transitional Council to pull back from the town in preparation for airstrikes by the military alliance, a NATO official said.
"NATO did not contact the rebel forces to let them pull back from positions on Bani Walid. We did not contact them, we don't have contacts with the NTC forces," the official told Reuters.
Volunteers asking to join the battle said Saturday they were getting increasingly impatient with the standoff. Dozens crowded around a desk at a mosque in Wishtata, a hamlet about 25 miles from Bani Walid, to register their names, blood type and other information.
Abdel Wahab Milad, a 26-year-old teacher from the town of Gharyan, drove dozens of miles to the front in a pickup truck with six friends. Dressed in army fatigues, he said he signed up for battle because it was time to "get rid of Gadhafi once and for all."
Gadhafi has not been seen in public for several months, and has been a fugitive since the fall of the capital of Tripoli in late August. In audio messages broadcast over a loyalist TV station, Gadhafi has urged his followers to keep fighting.
On Friday, revolutionary forces also battled loyalists near the Gadhafi hometown of Sirte, 250 miles southeast of Tripoli, but withdrew after heavy casualties.
'Here come the Libyans'
Despite a bombardment of rockets from Gadhafi loyalists, columns of vehicles drove toward the front line at Bani Walid Saturday, with rebel fighters in pick-up trucks shaking their fists in the air and shouting "Here come the Libyans."
"We are going in today," Abdullah Kanshil, an official of the ruling NTC, told reporters outside the town, 95 miles southeast of Tripoli.
"Civilians will be protected. We are already inside the city and we have found rocket launchers in the houses. We have thousands of fighters," he said.
Kanshil said about 1,000 Gadhafi soldiers were defending the town — far more than the 150 previously estimated.
"They are launching Grad rockets from private houses so NATO (warplanes) cannot do anything about it," he said.
Meanwhile, officials in neighboring Niger said four senior Libyan military officers have entered the country.
Justice Minister Amadou Morou said late Friday that the Libyan chief of staff of the air force, his pilot and the commanders of two Libyan military regions have arrived in Niger. Morou declined to name the officers.
Morou condemned an attempted attack on the Embassy of Niger in Tripoli on Wednesday night by a group of 20 armed men who tried to force their way in. He said the compound is now being offered protection by Libya's NTC.
Libya's new rulers had set a Saturday deadline for Gadhafi loyalists in Bani Walid, Sirte, and Sabha, deep in Libya's southern desert — the three key remaining Gadhafi bastions — to surrender or face an offensive.
At the Libyan fighters' checkpoint outside Bani Walid, the spokesman for the revolutionaries, Abu Seif Ghneya, said there was no fighting or casualties overnight but that there would be a final push toward the town center on Saturday.
Before the Friday evening assault on Bani Walid, Gadhafi holdouts inside had fired mortars and rockets toward the fighters' position in a desert dotted with green shrubs and white rocks, killing at least one and wounding several. Loud explosions were heard about six miles from the front line during the day, followed by plumes of black smoke in the already hazy air. NATO planes circled above.
NATO says it is acting under a U.N. mandate to guarantee the safety of Libya's civilian population. Its bombing campaign has been crucial to the advance of Gadhafi's military opponents.
Also Friday, Interpol said it had issued its top most-wanted alert for the arrest of Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's ex-chief of military intelligence, Abdullah al-Senoussi. The three are sought by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity, and there have been reports Seif al-Islam is in Bani Walid.