BRITISH special forces soldiers are in Libya hunting for fallen leader Muammar Gaddafi, who they believe is still in the country after neighbouring Algeria denied him entry, ITV News has reported.
Large numbers of Special Air Service (SAS) officers are using ships docked off the Libyan coast to launch searches for the elusive strongman and his network of supporters, a source in the country told the news channel.
A smaller team is believed to be operating out of the eastern city of Benghazi.
Britain’s Ministry of Defence has refused to confirm the report, adding that it was government policy not to comment on special forces operations.
Citing sources close to the Algerian president, the El-Watan daily reported in its online edition that Gaddafi had “tried to reach (Algerian) President Abdelaziz Bouteflika by telephone but he has refused to take the call.”
The report said Gaddafi was hiding out in the border town of Ghadames with family members awaiting permission to cross into Algeria where his wife, two sons and a daughter have already made their way.
“It’s not the first time that Gaddafi and his emissaries have tried to make contact with the Algerian president,” the francophone newspaper said.
Meanwhile, Gaddafi’s son Saadi has attempted to negotiate a surrender, to avoid further bloodshed.
A rebel military commander, Abdul Hakim El Haj, said Saadi had told him in a telephone conversation that he and other members of the Gaddafi inner-circle wanted to hand themselves in.
Speaking on al-Jazeera, Mr El Haj said Saadi Gaddafi had admitted “the majority of the inner circle are ready to resign”.
It was unclear whether Muammar Gaddafi was included in the “inner circle” but leaders of the National Transitional Council said they were close to tracking down the fugitive former dictator.
NTC executive Ali Tarhouni said: “We have a very good idea about his whereabouts. We have no doubt that we will catch him.”
Gaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam is vowing to fight to the death and says nobody will surrender.
He also said he was speaking from the suburbs outside Tripoli and insisted his father is fine.
His defiant audio statement was broadcast on Al-Rai television station shortly after another statement by his brother, Saadi.
There is a strong sense among the NTC and rebels that it is only a matter of time before the remaining members of the Gaddafi family are caught or hand themselves in.
This week, four members of Gaddafi’s family – his wife, two sons and daughter – fled to neighbouring Algeria. That news was almost certain to signal to any militia still fighting for Gaddafi and other members of the Gaddafi family that they were in trouble.
NTC leaders have given a deadline of Saturday for Gaddafi loyalists in one of the few remaining Gaddafi strongholds – Sirte, his birthplace – to surrender.
The NTC says if they refuse to give up, a military assault on Sirte will be launched.
The deadline coincides with the end of the Eid holiday, a festival marking the completion of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
NTC head Mustafa Abdul Jalil, said the NTC would not deal “lightly” with anyone who posed a threat to “the revolution” but they would ensure that fair trials were carried out.
While NTC leaders – the political governing body of the rebels – stress that the Gaddafis and their supporters must be treated with due process, some rebels appear less sympathetic.
“It is our right to kill him,” the rebels’ head of military affairs Omar Hariri told the Agence France Presse news agency. “He is killing us. He is a criminal and outlaw. All over the world if the criminal does not surrender, it is the right of law enforcers to kill him.”
He said his information was that it was “80 per cent certain” that Gaddafi was still in Libya.
The decision by Algeria to accept members of the Gaddafi family has damaged relations between the new Libyan NTC government and Algeria.
The NTC was already upset with Algeria for failing to endorse the NTC but now the NTC is accusing Algeria of having sent mercenaries to assist Gaddafi.
Italy said last night the fall of Sirte would signal the end of the Gaddafi regime, hinting that NATO’s mission was drawing to a close. “If as I hope Sirte falls as a result of a peaceful surrender by Saturday, that will be the last bastion signalling the fall of the regime,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.
The NATO mission in Libya “will conclude when Libya is free,” he said.
Asked where he thought Gaddafi could be hiding, Mr Frattini said: “My personal opinion is that Gaddafi has found refuge within Libya itself. Libya is a big and desert country – there are areas that he could have run away to.”
The security situation in Tripoli is improving by the day. Yesterday, many civilians came on to the streets to do last-minute shopping for the Eid festival.
Tens of thousands of Libyans gathered to kneel in prayer at the landmark Martyrs Square as they rejoiced in the festival and the fall of Gaddafi.
At dawn, men, women and children began to pour into the Tripoli square – which had been dubbed “Green Square” by Gaddafi.
“This is the best holiday of my life,” said Adel Masmoudi, 41, who was born the year Gaddafi seized power.
An imam leading the dawn prayer at the square urged all Libyans to stand united and hailed the ouster of “the tyrant Gaddafi”, prompting jeers from the crowd at the mention of the former leader’s name.