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Libya fighters pour in from Tripoli in final battle to take one of Gadhafi's last bastions
WISHATA, Libya (AP) ' Fighters battled with Moammar Gadhafi loyalists Saturday as more volunteers poured in from the Libyan capital and other towns held by the former rebels to join what they expect to be the final battle for Bani Walid, one of the ousted leader's last remaining strongholds.
The pro-Gadhafi forces fired Grad rockets and mortars, and snipers fired on the revolutionary fighters trying to force their way in Bani Walid, killing at least two, said Abdullah Kanshir, a negotiator with the former rebels. The commander of the assault, Daw Salaheen, called on the city's residents to lay down their arms, saying anyone who does so will be "safe in our hands."
After a weeklong standoff over a peaceful surrender of the town, the Libyan fighters on Friday launched a two-pronged assault on Bani Walid that soon dissolved into street fighting.
Revolutionary forces had initially given tribal leaders and pro-Gadhafi loyalists in Bani Walid until Saturday to surrender, but said they were drawn into fighting on Friday night after former regime fighters attacked with rockets.
Volunteers asking to join the battle said Saturday they were getting increasingly impatient with the standoff. Dozens crowded around a desk at a mosque in Wishtata, a hamlet about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Bani Walid, to register their names, blood type and other information.
Abdel Wahab Milad, a 26-year-old teacher from the town of Gharyan, drove dozens of miles to the front in a pickup truck with six friends. Dressed in army fatigues, he said he signed up for battle because it was time to "get rid of Gadhafi once and for all."
Gadhafi has not been seen in public for several months, and has been a fugitive since the fall of the capital of Tripoli in late August. In audio messages broadcast over a loyalist TV station, Gadhafi has urged his followers to keep fighting.
On Friday, revolutionary forces also battled loyalists near the Gadhafi hometown of Sirte, 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, but withdrew after heavy casualties.
Meanwhile, officials in neighboring Niger said four senior Libyan military officers have entered the country.
Justice Minister Amadou Morou said late Friday that the Libyan chief of staff of the air force, his pilot and the commanders of two Libyan military regions have arrived in Niger. Morou declined to name the officers.
Morou condemned an attempted attack on the Embassy of Niger in Tripoli on Wednesday night by a group of 20 armed men who tried to force their way in. He said the compound is now being offered protection by Libya's National Transitional Council.
Libya's new rulers had set a Saturday deadline for Gadhafi loyalists in Bani Walid, Sirte, and Sabha, deep in Libya's southern desert ' the three key remaining Gadhafi bastions ' to surrender or face an offensive.
At the Libyan fighters' checkpoint outside Bani Walid, the spokesman for the revolutionaries, Abu Seif Ghneya, said there was no fighting or casualties overnight but that there would be a final push toward the town center on Saturday.
Before the Friday evening assault on Bani Walid, Gadhafi holdouts inside had fired mortars and rockets toward the fighters' position in a desert dotted with green shrubs and white rocks, killing at least one and wounding several. Loud explosions were heard about six miles (10 kilometers) from the front line during the day, followed by plumes of black smoke in the already hazy air. NATO planes circled above.
NATO says it is acting under a U.N. mandate to guarantee the safety of Libya's civilian population. Its bombing campaign has been crucial to the advance of Gadhafi's military opponents.
Also Friday, Interpol said it had issued its top most-wanted alert for the arrest of Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's ex-chief of military intelligence, Abdullah al-Senoussi. The three are sought by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity, and there have been reports Seif al-Islam is in Bani Walid.