BENGHAZI/SIRTE, Libya: Libya’s interim rulers said Friday they would announce a new government within the next few days, signaling a breakthrough in previously unproductive efforts to form a more inclusive administration to lead the war-torn North African country.
“We’ve agreed on a number of portfolios and who would hold the most important ones. There will be 22 portfolios and one vice prime minister,” said Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, a spokesman for the National Transitional Council. “It would be a compact government, a crisis government.”
His comments came a day after NTC forces said they had achieved gains on the battlefield, tightening their grip on southern oasis towns which sided with Moammar Gadhafi.
That progress was overshadowed by unsuccessful efforts to take two remaining strongholds loyal to the ousted leader, which if captured would bolster the NTC’s credibility.
Discussions in Libya to set up a more inclusive interim government have been unproductive before. It remains unclear whether the NTC, still based in the eastern city of Benghazi, can unify a country split along tribal and regional lines.
NTC forces now control a string of desert towns in Libya’s deep south, although they said Gadhafi loyalists were still holding out in pockets of at least one oasis.
So far they have failed to take the two much larger loyalist strongholds far to the north, Bani Walid and Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, in a series of chaotic offensives which have raised questions about the NTC’s ability to control the country.
The NTC, Libya’s de facto government since Gadhafi’s fall, has been anxious to show it can establish control over a country riven by tribal rivalries.
But, despite support from NATO warplanes, government forces have struggled to capture Sirte, the biggest city outside its control.
This is a complex job because many residents sympathize with Gadhafi.
A Reuters reporter on the western edges of Sirte saw dozens of cars with civilians leaving the town Friday. Rebels fired sporadic tank shells and artillery at suspected positions of Gadhafi loyalists. NATO aircraft could be heard overhead.
“In the city, as soon as you leave the main square there is shooting. It is an effort to scare the residents,” said Massoud al-Adawi, a fleeing resident of Sirte. “[The Gadhafi loyalists] don’t want people to leave the city. They want to use them as human shields.”
Amr al-Aswar, an NTC military commander on the western edge of Sirte, said civilians who remained in the town were the main obstacle.
“The civilians, this is the real problem,” he said. “They don’t know the truth. Gadhafi’s media obscured what’s been happening.”
Until Thursday, some parts of Sabha, the traditional base for Gadhafi’s own tribe about 800 km south of Tripoli, had been occupied by fighters loyal to the leader who lost control of the capital and most of the country last month.
“Our revolutionaries are controlling 100 percent of Sabha city, although there are some pockets of resistance by snipers,” NTC military spokesman Ahmed Bani said Thursday in Tripoli.
The U.N. atomic agency said Thursday Gadhafi’s government had stored raw uranium near Sabha, after CNN reported NTC forces had found a military site containing what appeared to be radioactive material.
In Vienna, International Atomic Energy Agency spokeswoman Gill Tudor said: “We can confirm that there is yellow cake stored in drums at a site near Sabha … which Libya previously declared to the IAEA.” The NTC says it also controls Jufra, to the northeast of Sabha, and the nearby oasis towns of Sokna, Waddan, and Houn.
A manhunt for Gadhafi, who has been in hiding for weeks although he occasionally issues defiant audio messages, was drawing closer to its target, said Bani.
Rebel fighters near Sirte and residents fleeing the city said pro-Gadhafi forces had been executing people suspected of sympathizing with the NTC.
North of Bani Walid, NTC military forces brought forward tanks and Grad rocket launchers for a renewed attempt to take the town although it was not clear when the attack might begin.
The offensive there has been frustrated by stiff resistance from well-drilled loyalist fighters, and also by a lack of organization among the NTC forces. They operate in disparate units based on their home towns, with little overall command.
Many fighters go into battle wearing flip-flop sandals, T-shirts and jeans and have no military training. “We don’t take orders from the NTC. We listen only to our own commander,” said Ziyad al-Khemri, a fighter from Zawiyah, just west of Tripoli.