TRIPOLI, Libya – Tripoli's military commander said Wednesday that Moammar Qaddafi is 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.
The comments are the latest in a series of conflicting statements on the most pressing question still haunting the North African nation -- where is Qaddafi?
The ousted leader, 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 his opponents.
He went to ground after opposition fighters swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21. The former rebels are still battling regime loyalists in three Qaddafi strongholds -- Bani Walid, Sabha and Sirte.
Hunting down Qaddafi 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.
Anis Sharif, a spokesman for Tripoli's military council, told The Associated Press that Qaddafi was still in Libya and had been tracked using advanced technology and human intelligence. Rebel forces have taken up positions on all sides of the fugitive leader's presumed location, with none more than 40 miles away, he said, without elaborating.
"He can't get out," said Sharif, who added the former rebels are preparing to either detain him or kill him. "We are just playing games with him," he said.
He said an operations room manned by about 20 people has been set up in Tripoli to try to track Qaddafi's movements and coordinate the hunt for him.
A fighter close to Libya's new leaders told the AP that the former rebels believe Qaddafi is inside Bani Walid.
However, Deputy Defense Minister Mohammad Taynaz told the AP that the former rebels don't know where Qaddafi is, and said the fugitive leader could still be hiding in tunnels under Tripoli.
He said the manhunt was not a focus for his men.
"Our priority is to liberate all of Libya," he said. "Once the country is free, there will be nowhere for him to hide in Libya."
Taynaz and Sharif both said that the former rebels are receiving no assistance from their NATO allies in the hunt.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen echoed that statement, telling reporters in the Czech capital of Prague that the military alliance's sole aim in Libya is to guarantee the safety of the country's civilian population.
"I have no information whatsoever on his (Qaddafi's) whereabouts," Fogh Rasmussen said. "He is not a target of NATO's operation."
NATO, which launched its air campaign against Qaddafi's regime in March under a U.N. mandate, has continued to hit loyalist targets since Tripoli's fall. The alliance said airstrikes Tuesday around Sirte -- Qaddafi's hometown -- hit six tanks, six armored fighting vehicles and an ammunition storage facility, among other targets. They also targeted the Qaddafi loyalist strongholds of Hun, Sabha and Waddan.
Convoys of former regime loyalists, including his security chief, fled across the Sahara into Niger this week in a move that Libya's former rebels hoped could help lead to the surrender of his the last bastions of his support.
In Niger's capital, Niamey, Massoudou Hassoumi, a spokesman for the president, said Qaddafi's security chief had crossed the desert into Niger on Monday.
Mansour Dao, the former commander of Libya's Revolutionary Guards who is a cousin of Qaddafi as well as a member of his inner circle, is the only senior Libyan figure to have crossed into Niger, said Hassoumi.
He added that the group of nine people also included several pro-Qaddafi businessmen, as well as Agaly ag Alambo, a Tuareg rebel leader from Niger who led a failed uprising in the country's north before crossing into Libya, where he was believed to be fighting for Qaddafi.
Since Tripoli's fall last month to Libyan rebels, there has been a movement of Qaddafi loyalists across the porous desert border that separates Libya from Niger. They include Tuareg fighters who are nationals of Niger and next-door neighbor Mali who fought on Qaddafi's behalf in the recent civil war.
Niger's foreign minister told Algeria's state news agency that several Libyan convoys had entered his country, but that none carried Qaddafi.
Hassan Droua, a representative of Sirte in the rebel's National Transitional Council, said he had reports from witnesses that a convoy of cars belonging to Qaddafi's son, Muatassim, was headed for the Niger border loaded with cash and gold from the city's Central Bank branch.
Algeria, which like Niger shares a border with Libya -- confirmed last week that the ousted leader's wife, his daughter, two of his sons, and several grandchildren had crossed into Algeria.
The West African nation of Burkina Faso, which borders Niger, offered Qaddafi asylum last month. On Tuesday, Burkina Faso distanced itself from Qaddafi, indicating he would be arrested if he went there.
The anti-Qaddafi fighters who toppled his regime by sweeping into Tripoli last month have been struggling to uproot the handful of regime holdouts, particularly in the cities of Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha. They say residents in those cities have been prevented from surrendering to the new post-Qaddafi rule because of former regime figures in their midst.
Abdullah Kenshil, the chief negotiator for the rebels in Bani Walid, told reporters outside a field clinic in Wishtat that Qaddafi's son and one-time heir apparent Seif al-Islam is hiding in the area.
"There's evidence of Seif was sighted yesterday in the district of Bani Walid," Kenshil said.
"There are a lot of caves, but he has left from the center of the city. No talks with Seif al-Islam."
Meanwhile, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the Transitional Council -- the closest thing to a Libyan government now -- warned that the loyalist town of Bani Walid had until Friday to surrender or else the former rebel forces would move in.
More truckloads of former rebels arrived Wednesday outside Bani Walid, a dusty city of 100,000 strung along the low ridges overlooking a dried up desert river valley on the road connecting Sirte and Sabha.
Bani Walid is the homeland of Libya's largest tribe, the Warfala. In 1993, some Warfala attempted a coup against Qaddafi but were brutally crushed. The masterminds were executed, their homes demolished and their clans shunned while Qaddafi brought other members of the tribe to dominance, giving them powerful government jobs and lucrative posts.