TRIPOLI/MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Libya's interim government said it was closing in on bastions of support for Muammar Gaddafi on Saturday, although there were mixed signals of how quickly their forces were moving.
Although the head of the NATO-backed National Transitional Council (NTC) reaffirmed a week-long grace period for making terms to avoid bloodshed, anti-Gaddafi fighters besieging two important towns said they were ready to attack.
A spokesman for Gaddafi, who is in hiding since his capital fell to rebel forces two weeks ago, dismissed talk of surrender and said powerful tribal leaders were still loyal to him.
Outside the town of Bani Walid, a stronghold of Libya's biggest tribe in Tripoli's desert hinterland, a spokesman for NTC forces said their patience was exhausted and an offensive would begin within hours. Around Sirte, Gaddafi's home town on the coast, there was similar impatience among the fighters.
"In a few hours we will enter, we will be in Bani Walid," local military spokesman Mahmoud Abdul Aziz told Reuters at a checkpoint 60 km (40 miles) north of the town where commanders for the National Transitional Council said this week they believe Gaddafi himself may have taken refuge.
"Some people have asked for more time. But we gave them enough time," Abdul Aziz said.
"We've lost patience. They have no forces and our morale is high. Today at night, or tomorrow morning, we're going to open Bani Walid, we're going to attack."
Yet there remained some doubt over the forces' plans. Some hours earlier, NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil had told a news conference in the eastern city of Benghazi, the seat of the six-month uprising, that he was ready for more negotiation:
"With God's grace, we are in a position of strength. We can enter any city ... but because of our care and desire to prevent bloodshed and avoid more destruction to national institutions we have given a period of one week.
"This is an opportunity for these cities to announce their peaceful joining of the revolution," he said.
Abdel Jalil also insisted that the hunt would go on for Gaddafi, whose capture or death the NTC leadership has said is essential for the conflict to be considered over.
Another senior NTC official reaffirmed that Gaddafi's foes knew roughly where he was, but gave no details.
Gaddafi's fugitive spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, who telephoned Reuters, said he himself did not know where the ousted 69-year-old leader was but insisted he was in Libya and well defended.
"He's in the country," he said. "And he's in a safe place surrounded by many people who are prepared to protect him."
Ibrahim would not say where he himself was calling from but in dismissing suggestions leaders in Bani Walid were ready to surrender, he replied: "The Transitional Council's messages to Bani Walid are not being heeded here in Bani Walid."
In a call on Friday, he had said he had been moving around with Gaddafi's son and long-time heir-apparent Saif al-Islam in a "southern suburb of Tripoli".
WAR OF WORDS
It was not clear how far statements from NTC fighters about their imminent plans to attack formed part of negotiations, or were the result of patchy communication among the disparate groups that have coalesced across the country to unseat Gaddafi.
NTC fighters said their forces had established a frontline about 30 km (20 miles) from the desert town. Near the checkpoint 60 km from Bani Walid, a Reuters correspondent saw considerable numbers of fighters, some of whom said they were preparing to move to Bani Walid, but there was no fighting.
On frontlines to the east and west of Sirte, fighters also said they were ready to move in.
Ahmed al-Amal, a unit commander to the west, said he was ready to advance: "Refugees coming out of Sirte have told us there's no food, fuel, water or electricity in the city. Gaddafi families in Sirte are forcing civilians to obey. They are mistreating them. A lot of people are angry and fed up."
Independent accounts from Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha, deep in the Sahara desert, have not been available as communications appear to be largely cut off. On Friday, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on all sides to protect civilians and allow the agency to provide aid to Sirte.
To the east of Sirte, whose resistance still effectively divides the country in two between Benghazi and Tripoli, fighters were also dug in and, they said, ready to advance.
"We are awaiting the green light from the council," said Naji el-Maghrabi, commander of the "Omar el-Mukhtar Brigade", named for a Libyan hero of battles against Italian colonists.
"If they tell us, 'Move into Sirte now,' we will."
Camping out in the heat and dust, ready to skirmish with Gaddafi loyalists probing their lines, fighter Belqassem Souliman said: "They have no way out but to surrender or die."
Libyans are looking to the more distant future, too, negotiating with foreign governments and planning to resume the oil and gas exports that many expect to make them rich.
Interim oil minister Ali Tarhouni said oil production, in the Misla and Sarir fields, would start on Sept. 12 or 13.
In Tripoli, life on the streets was getting back to normal after the fighting last month and the past week's Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Traffic was heavy as supplies of fuel improved. Cafes were busy and offices opened for business.
In the evening, many celebrated not only new freedoms but the victory of the national soccer team in a qualifying round match for the African Cup of Nations. Flying Libya's new flag, they beat Mozambique 1-0 in a "home" fixture played in Cairo.
(Reporting by Christian Lowe and Mohammed Abbas and Alex Dziadosz in Tripoli, Maria Golovnina in Misrata, Sherine El Madany in Umm Qundil, Emma Farge in Benghazi, Marie-Louise Gumuchian, Barry Malone and Alastair Macdonald in Tunis and Amena Bakr and Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Alastair Macdonald)