BY ROY GUTMAN
BENGHAZI, Libya — Libya’s rebel government issued an ultimatum Tuesday to backers of ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi: Give up the city of Sirte by Saturday or face a military assault, with the almost certain backing of NATO airpower.
A week after Tripoli fell and a day after Gadhafi’s wife and three of his adult children escaped to Algeria, civilian and military officials set the conclusion of the holiday that ends the Ramadan month of fasting as the deadline for Sirte.
The National Transitional Council has been in touch with leaders and tribal elders in the seaside city to avoid more “bloodshed, destruction and damage,” chairman Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, said at a news conference, but he added that that “window of opportunity” closes Saturday.
If there were no indication of a peaceful handover, “we can act decisively to end this situation in a military manner,” he said. “We do not wish to do so, but we cannot wait more than that. ”
“Zero hour is quickly approaching,” Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, a military spokesman, said at a separate news conference. “And up to this moment we still have not received any hopeful proposal for the city of Sirte.”
NATO, whose aerial bombardment was crucial to the rebels’ overwhelming of Gadhafi’s military, indicated that it’s likely to provide airpower if the transitional council decides to use force .
The transitional government mentioned two other Gadhafi strongholds where it’s also prepared to use force: Bani Walid, a city southeast of Tripoli, and Sabha, deep in the Sahara desert. Bani indicated that Sirte would be the first to come under attack.
Abdel-Jalil said that Gadhafi’s wife, Safia, daughter, Aisha, sons Hannibal and Mohammed and their children weren’t likely to stay long in Algeria and probably would travel to another country. Algeria has been seen as a Gadhafi backer, but Abdel-Jalil said the two countries were working to align their positions.