BANI WALID/SIRTE, Libya: Libya’s interim government said Monday its forces had seized the airport and fort in Sabha, one of the last strongholds of forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi which also controls the main route south out of Libya. “Our forces are there in the airport and in the castle. Our flags are flying there,” Ahmad Bani, a military spokesman for the National Transitional Council, told a news conference in Tripoli. It was not possible to obtain independent confirmation.
Sabha, 770 km south of Tripoli and overlooked by an old fort built by Libya’s former Italian colonial rulers, controls the main trail south to neighboring Niger, an escape route used by members of Gadhafi’s entourage.
Any advance on the town, which is still used as a military base, would be an important boost for government forces who are struggling to oust Gadhafi loyalists from the towns of Bani Walid and Sirte as well as to contain disunity in their ranks.
Bani also denied an assertion by Gadhafi’s spokesman that his forces had captured 17 British and French nationals in the fight for Bani Walid. “There are no British or French prisoners” in the town, Bani said.
The claim by Gadhafi’s spokesman Moussa Ibrahim that foreign security personnel had been captured could not be verified and no immediate proof was presented.
“A group was captured in Bani Walid consisting of 17 mercenaries. They are technical experts and they include consultative officers,” Gadhafi spokesman Ibrahim said on Syria-based Arrai television, which has backed Gadhafi.
“Most of them are French, one of them is from an Asian country that has not been identified, two English people and one Qatari.”
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said there were “no French mercenaries in Libya,” while the British Foreign Office said it had no information about whether the report was true. Qatar’s Foreign Ministry was not available for comment. NATO, which is staging airstrikes on Gadhafi loyalist positions, says it has no troops on the ground in Libya.
Western nations have sent special forces in the past, and media have reported that private security firms have aided anti-Gadhafi forces in training, targeting and with leadership. Gulf Arab states have also sent trainers and arms.
The claim about the capture of foreign security personnel added to confusion about the situation in Libya nearly a month after Gadhafi was driven from power.
The former leader’s loyalist holdouts have beaten back repeated assaults by NTC forces at Bani Walid and Gadhafi’s home city of Sirte. NTC fighters have been sent fleeing in disarray after failing to storm Gadhafi bastions.
The NTC, still based in Benghazi, has faced questions about whether it can unify a country divided on tribal and local lines. A long-promised attempt to set up a more inclusive interim government fell apart overnight.
NTC forces were unable Monday to approach the northern gate of Bani Walid, 150 km southeast of Tripoli, to attack the town because of heavy gunfire from Gadhafi loyalists.
“There is a lack of organization so far. Infantrymen are running in all directions,” said Zakaria Tuham, a senior fighter with a Tripoli-based unit.
NTC forces and NATO warplanes also attacked Sirte, Gadhafi’s birthplace, where assaults have been repelled. Hundreds of families were fleeing the city Monday as NTC forces rolled up with huge rocket launchers and artillery.
In Benghazi, interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril failed to name a new cabinet Sunday when his proposals did not receive full backing from all current members.
“We have agreed on a number of portfolios. We still have more portfolios to be discussed,” Jibril told reporters at a news conference Sunday.
Sources familiar with the negotiations said Jibril’s own role had been a sticking point. There was also disagreement about whether it was right to form a transitional government before declaring Libya “liberated,” which NTC officials say can only happen when all Gadhafi loyalists are defeated.
The infighting reveals some of the fractures in an alliance that was united in civil war by hatred of Gadhafi but remains split among pro-Western liberals, underground Islamist guerrillas and defectors from Gadhafi’s government.
The NTC has its roots in Libya’s east, but most of the militiamen who finally succeeded in driving Gadhafi out of Tripoli come from towns in the west. Fighters are organized by home town into individual units with little overall coordination.