TARHOUNA, Libya – Libyan rebels are poised to attack one of Muammar Gadhafi's remaining strongholds, but their military spokesman said Sunday he expected the town's tribal leaders to surrender rather than see their divided followers fight one another.
Rebels control most of Libya and are moving forward with setting up a new government, but they might hold off on declaring victory until Qaddafi is caught and his remaining strongholds are defeated. Qaddafi and his staunchest allies have been on the run since the fall of the capital late last month. Loyalists have entrenched themselves in several towns, including besieged Bani Walid, some 90 miles southeast of Tripoli.
Col. Ahmed Bani, the rebel's military spokesman based in Benghazi, said members of the tribe that dominates Bani Walid and is the largest in Libya, the Warfala, are divided over whether to join the rebels. He said he expected the Warfala to surrender to avoid fighting among one another.
"They will give up at the end because they are cousins and they don't want to spill each other's blood," he said.
Bani added people in Bani Walid have told the rebels that one of Qaddafi's sons, Seif al-Islam, had fled to Bani Walid soon after Tripoli fell, but left recently for fear townspeople would hand him over to the rebels.
Seif al-Islam Qaddafi once had been expected to succeed his father, and was indicted alongside him on international charges of crimes against humanity in their attempt to quash the rebellion that broke out in February. Last week, a man claiming to be Seif al-Islam Qaddafi made an appeal from hiding that was carried by a Syrian-based TV station, urging his father's supporters to keep up the fight even if it means "we are going to die on our land."
Rebel officials have given conflicting statements on where they believe the elder Qaddafi is hiding. Bani Walid, Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte and the loyalist town of Sabha, deep in the Libyan desert, have been mentioned.
NATO reported bombing a military barracks, a police camp and several other targets near Sirte overnight, as well as targets near Hun, a possible staging ground in the desert halfway between Sirte and Sabha. It also reported bombing an ammunition storage facility near Bani Walid.
Rebels, meanwhile, circled Bani Walid, saying they are ready to take it by force if necessary. Thousands of rebel fighters have converged on Bani Walid in recent days, with the closest forces about 10 miles from the town center.
Rebels from Misrata, a western port that played a central role in the war, reported late Saturday they faced no resistance when they took over two military camps on the outskirts of Bani Walid.
"Negotiations are over, and we are waiting for orders" to attack, said Mohammed al-Fassi, a rebel commander at a staging area about 45 miles from Bani Walid. "We wanted to do this without bloodshed, but they took advantage of our timeline to protect themselves."
Al-Fassi said more Qaddafi loyalists have moved into Bani Walid from the south, but did not know how many.
The 1-million-strong Warfala make up one-sixth of Libya's population. Muammar Qaddafi said in an audio message last week that the Warfala would be among the tribes defending him to the death.
But Bani Walid also has a history of opposition to Qaddafi. Western diplomats in Libya and opposition leaders abroad reported in 1993 that the air force had put down an uprising by army units in Misrata and Bani Walid. They said many officers were executed and arrested.