TRIPOLI, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam vowed today to fight to the death, insisting no regime loyalists would surrender to the rebels, who are closing in on Gadhafi’s final strongholds.
Seif al-Islam, Gadhafi’s longtime heir-apparent, said he was speaking from the suburbs of Tripoli and insisted his father was fine.
“We are going to die in our land,” he said in an audio statement broadcast on Syria’s Al-Rai television, claiming he was speaking for loyalist leaders who had met in the Gadhafi bastion of Bani Walid. “No one is going to surrender.”
His statement came shortly after a conflicting interview on Al-Arabiya television by a man claiming to be his brother, al-Saadi, who said he was ready to mediate talks with the rebels in order to bring the fighting to an end.
“The most important thing is to stop the bloodshed,” al-Saadi told the Saudi Arabian television network, claiming he was speaking on behalf of his father.
Seif al-Islam’s voice was easily recognizable, but al-Saadi’s was more difficult to confirm.
Asked about his brother’s statements, Seif al-Islam said he was under pressure: “This means nothing.”
A rebel commander in Tripoli, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, said earlier that al-Saadi was trying to negotiate terms for his own surrender if his safety could be guaranteed. When asked about that report, al-Saadi said he had talked to Belhaj and several other rebel officials, but that he was only offering to surrender to bring an end to the bloodshed.
The dueling audio statements suggest growing turmoil in Gadhafi’s inner circle as the rebel force pressed toward three of the loyalists’ main strongholds, Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte and the desert towns of Bani Walid and Sabha. The rebels also say they are closing in on the elder Gadhafi, who has been on the run since rebels swept into the capital last week.
“The regime is dying,” said rebel council spokesman Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga, reacting to the brothers’ statements. “Gadhafi’s family is trying to find an exit.”
“They only have to surrender completely to the rebels and we will offer them a fair trial. We won’t hold negotiations with them over anything,” he added.
Thursday will mark the 42nd anniversary of the coup that brought Gadhafi to power.
Hassan al-Saghir, a rebel official who oversees an area that includes the southern city of Sabha, said clashes occurred there and on the outskirts of Bani Walid, 90 miles southeast of Tripoli.
“We are asking them to surrender before Saturday,” he said of the fighters in Sabha, “but so far there are no signs that they are ready to surrender. I think they still think they are able to control the south.”
“It is a desperate attempt and it will not last long,” he added.
Belhaj said al-Saadi first called him Tuesday and asked about his safety if he surrendered. “We told him ’Don’t fear for your life. We will guarantee your rights as a human being, and will deal with you humanely,’ Belhaj said, adding that al-Saadi would be turned over to Libyan legal authorities.
Belhaj said Al-Saadi told him he had not killed anyone, and that “he was not against the people.”
“I told him ’This is good. What is important for us is not to shed Libyan blood. For the members of the regime to surrender is the best way to do this,”’ said Belhaj.
The commander said al-Saadi had called back this morning but that he had missed the call. He said he knows al-Saadi’s whereabouts but prefers to negotiate a surrender. He gave no further details.
Gadhafi’s chief spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, has repeatedly said in telephone calls to the Associated Press that the senior Gadhafi was offering to send al-Saadi to negotiate with the rebels and form a transitional government. The rebels have previously rejected such offers.
Today, Ibrahim also rejected a rebel ultimatum for loyalists in Sirte to surrender by Saturday or face an attack.
“No dignified honorable nation would accept an ultimatum from armed gangs,” he said.
There has been speculation that Gadhafi is seeking refuge in Sirte or one of the other remaining regime strongholds, among them Bani Walid or the southern town of Sabha. Top rebel officials say they have “a good idea” where Gadhafi is hiding, but haven’t given any details.
Belhaj said the rebels have set up an operations room to collect any information about the elder Gadhafi’s whereabouts, gathering tips from rebels and captured regime fighters.
Gadhafi’s wife, Safiya, sons Mohammed and Hannibal and daughter Aisha fled to Algeria on Monday. Rebel authorities have called on Algeria to send them back, saying they want Gadhafi and his family to be tried in Libya.
But international human rights activists are urging the rebels to turn the dictator over to the International Criminal Court for trial. Leading the calls is the court’s Argentine prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who has charged Gadhafi and his son Seif al-Islam and the regime’s intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Sanoussi, with unleashing a campaign of murder and torture since February to try to crush anti-government protests.
Human Rights Watch also urged diplomats meeting Libyan rebels in Paris on Thursday to push for Gadhafi’s surrender to The Hague-based international court if he is captured.
In Tripoli, meanwhile, Libyans wept over the graves of those killed in their six-month war against Gadhafi, then celebrated their newfound freedom with morning prayers and joyous chants in the main square — bittersweet rituals marking the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
Men in their holiday finest — white robes and gold-striped vests — knelt in neat prayer rows in Martyrs’ Square, the plaza formerly known as Green Square, where Gadhafi supporters massed nightly during the uprising.
The prayer leader urged the crowd not to seek retribution against Gadhafi loyalists. “No to revenge, yes to the law that rules between us and those who killed our brothers,” he said. “Let there be forgiveness and mercy among us.”
Women in black robes ululated, rebel fighters fired guns in the air and people burst into spontaneous chants of “Hold your head high, Libya is free!”