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Libya rebels push closer to Gadhafi hometown, despite extension of surrender deadline
TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) ' Rebel fighters pushed closer to Moammar Gadhafi's hometown on Friday, despite the extension of a deadline for the town's surrender and negotiations with tribal leaders aimed at avoiding bloodshed.
With the capital of Tripoli firmly in their hands, the rebels are in no rush to assault the loyalist-held town of Sirte, rebel officials said, hoping the town would surrender without an attack. But the rebels are also moving their forces into position in case an assault is needed.
"Military action will be the last option, because after the fall of the capital, we are not in a hurry," said Khaled Zintani, a spokesman for the rebels in the remote mountain town of Zintan.
Tribal elders in Sirte had asked that a delegation from Zintan be sent to Sirte to help with negotiations, he said, because of a long history of bad blood with rebels from towns closer to Sirte.
Despite the extension of a Sirte surrender deadline to Sept. 10, rebel forces have not stopped advancing, said another rebel spokesman, Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga. Rebel brigades have pushed to the town of Wadi Hawarah, just 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Sirte, he said.
"The rebels at the front line are very eager to move without delay," he said. "They live in harsh conditions there in the middle of the desert, and in hot weather," he said.
Gadhafi remains a fugitive and there have been conflicting reports about his whereabouts.
Gen. Omar al-Hariri, a rebel military commander, suggested Friday that Gadhafi might either be in a suburb of Tripoli or in the town of Bani Walid, 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. But he also acknowledged that the former Libyan leader probably has hideouts elsewhere.
"We are after him and we will find him," he told The Associated Press. "He called us rats, but he is the larger rat."
The rebels have said they are concentrating their forces on three strongholds still held by Gadhafi loyalists: Sirte, Bani Walid and the southern city of Sabha.
But even with Gadhafi still on the run, rebel leaders are already trying to stabilize Libya.
A Libyan official said at least five foreign oil and gas companies have returned to the country in recent days to try to get production going again. Libya's economic future could hinge on its lucrative oil and gas sectors, whose production ground to a halt during the insurgency against Gadhafi.
Advance teams from oil and gas companies are assessing damage and trying to restart their facilities, said Aref Ali Nayed, a member of the rebel-lead government's so-called stabilization team. He spoke in Paris after talks with U.N. and other international officials.
While fighting has subsided in much of Libya, the six-month civil war between rebels and Gadhafi's forces disrupted supply lines and damaged infrastructure across the country, leaving many people facing severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine, U.N. officials said.
But despite those shortages, thousands of people gathered in Tripoli's central plaza, recently renamed Martyrs' Square, to celebrate the downfall of the Gadhafi regime.
Many of those celebrating were women, a rare sight in a country where women have long had a very limited public role. Some, though, said it was time for that to change.
"We want to get out and say what we want," said Fatima Zeidan, a 15-year-old high school student. "We want women to get out because we can't do that a lot, and to express our feelings."
Gadhafi styled himself an advocate of women's rights, creating a special force of female bodyguards and placing a handful of women in top position in the regime.
One of those female officials, Huda bin Amer, has been arrested in Tripoli, rebel spokesman Goma al-Gamaty said.
Bin Amer was particularly remembered for photographs that showed her pulling on the hanging corpse of a pilot convicted of plotting to assassinate Gadhafi, el-Gamaty said.
Before Gadhafi's fall, she was the head of the secretariat of women affairs in the Peoples' Congress.
Meanwhile, Tripoli's new military commander, Abdel Hakim Belhaj, addressed concerns Friday about his Islamist past. Belhaj is the former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which fought alongside al-Qaida in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an interview at his headquarters at Tripoli's military airport, Belhaj said he refused to join al-Qaida because he disagreed with its ideology of global jihad, or holy war, and wanted to focus on ridding Libya of Gadhafi.
He lauded the West for supporting the rebels with NATO airstrikes and diplomatic efforts. "The U.N. Security Council and the whole world stood by us in the cause and have helped us to get rid of Gadhafi," he said.
The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, known as LIFG, is not a monolithic entity, explained one U.S. official familiar with the group. Some branches have had connections with al-Qaida, while others dropped all ties to the militant group
Belhaj lead a faction that disavowed al-Qaida, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence. But U.S. officials are "watching to see whether or not this is for real, or just for show," he said.
Associated Press writers Hadeel al-Shalchi and Ben Hubbard in Tripoli and Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed reporting.