Connect to share and comment

Libya: Rebel forces ready to assault Bani Walid

But anti-Gaddafi forces want to minimize bloodshed, still hope for collapse.

Libyan rebel soldiers celebrate as they arrive on an ex-Libyan Army frigate from Bengazi on August 30, 2011 in Tripoli, Libya. (Daniel Berehulak/AFP/Getty Images)

ZLITEN, Libya — Thousands of Libya's rebel fighters surrounded Bani Walid Monday and were poised to attack the town, one of the last centers held by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.

The rebels held back on a direct assault on Bani Walid because they hoped to avoid a bloody battle for the town.

Bani Walid is one of the last four towns that are still held by force loyal to Gaddafi. The other towns include Gaddafi's hometown Sirte, Sabha.

Rebel leaders in Tripoli said they must capture all those towns and assert control over all of Libya and capture Gaddafi before starting the actual transition to democracy, according to AP. Only then would they begin an eight-month process to elect a national assembly, draft a constitution and then hold general elections.

Meanwhile, an armed convoy of at least 50 vehicles drove across the Libyan desert and crossed over the southern desert border into Niger. Niger's foreign minister said that Gaddafi is not in the convoy. The new Libyan authorities charge that the convoy is carrying gold and money.

VIDEO: Migrants or mercenaries? African migrants face an uncertain fate

Libya's rebel forces are on edge here in Zliten, 43 miles (70 kilometers) north of Bani Walid. They don't know if or when they will attack the town. 

They say they are still waiting for the population in Bani Walid to rise up before they push in, accordin to Safe Al Afi, a local military commander in charge of rebel forces that will move on the embattled town.

He said this is what the rebels hope for, because it would mean a less bloody battle than a direct assault by the rebels. He also added that his intelligence puts conditions inside the city as very bad. Citizens are without food and water.

The trigger point could come from rebels on the outskirts of Bani Walid without the formal approval of the National Transitional Council (NTC). Al Afi added that the NTC gave the armed rebels the prerogative to move on Bani Walid at their discretion.

Local rebels in Zliten said Gaddafi’s son Saif Al Islam had been seen in Bani Walid this week. Gaddafi was also reported to be in Bani Walid several days ago but now the rebels are convinced he has fled there, according to Zliten’s military commander, Ramadan Hadia, 49, a former Gaddafi captain who defected early in the six-month revolution. He said he’s 90 percent sure that Gaddafi is not in Libya. But he said there is a high probability that some of his sons are in Bani Walid.

Zliten, a city 85 miles (140 kilometers) east of Tripoli, has seen some of the most murderous violence of the Libyan revolution. Neighborhoods divided between rebels and loyalists, with neighbors capturing, torturing and killing neighbors.

LIBYA: For love of guns, the worrisome proliferation of small arms

Now the former terrorized rebels are holding captive the very men who captured them months ago. There is an uneasy balance between justice and revenge, over what to do with the more than 300 accused now held in the overcrowded, local prison.

At the start of the revolt against Gaddafi in February, rebels in Zliten were quickly suppressed, assassinated and rounded up in prisons, mainly because the city was one of Gaddafi's bases of operations to fight the larger, rebellious city of Misrata 24 miles (40 kilometers) east.

The majority of the men killed in the now infamous massacre in the Khamis Brigade headquarters in Tripoli, first revealed on Aug. 26, were from Zliten. Locals said some 80 men were shot and their bodies burned there. Only about 15 managed to escape.

Fahti Abdu Hari, 20, a young rebel from Zliten said he was driving in his neighborhood with his friend Osama on Aug. 19. A car pulled up alongside them at the cross street, men got out and grabbed them. Fahti knew the loyalists who took him. They were also from Zliten.

The loyalists found a rebel ID and a machine gun in Osama’s car. They took Fahti and Osama blindfolded to a makeshift camp, one of many torture centers in the city. They were beaten by the loyalists.

LIBYA: Africa sticks by old friend Gaddafi

“Confess, and we’ll release you,” the