TRIPOLI, Libya — A Tripoli military official said Wednesday that Moammar Gadhafi is cornered and the days before he is captured or killed are numbered, but another senior defense official contended that Libya's new rulers have no idea where the fugitive former leader is.
The comments are the latest in a series of conflicting statements on the most pressing question still haunting the North African nation – where is Gadhafi?
The ousted leader, who ruled Libya for nearly 42 years, hasn't been seen in public for months, and has released only audio messages trying to rally his supporters and lash out at his opponents. He went into hiding after opposition fighters swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21. The former rebels are still battling regime loyalists in three Gadhafi strongholds – Bani Walid, Sabha and Sirte.
Hunting down Gadhafi would help seal the new rulers' hold on the country, and likely trigger the collapse of the remaining regime loyalists still fighting the former rebels.
Anis Sharif, a spokesman for Tripoli's military council, told The Associated Press that Gadhafi was still in Libya and had been tracked using advanced technology and human intelligence. Rebel forces have taken up positions on all sides of the fugitive leader's presumed location, with none more than 40 miles (60 kilometers) away, he said, without elaborating.
"He can't get out," said Sharif, who added the former rebels are preparing to either detain him or kill him. "We are just playing games with him," he said.
He said an operations room manned by about 20 people has been set up in Tripoli to try to track Gadhafi's movements and coordinate the search.
Thousands of fighters have converged on areas outside Bani Walid, some 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, and have threatened to attack if residents don't surrender by Saturday. Officials have said the town emerged as a focus because of the number of prominent regime loyalists believed to be inside.
More truckloads of former rebels arrived Wednesday outside Bani Walid, a dusty city of 100,000 strung along the low ridges overlooking a dried up desert river valley on the road connecting Sirte and Sabha.
Abdullah Kenshil, the chief negotiator for the rebels in Bani Walid, told reporters outside a field clinic in Wishtat that Gadhafi's son and one-time heir apparent Seif al-Islam appears to be one of those hiding in the area.
"There's evidence Seif was sighted yesterday in the district of Bani Walid," Kenshil said. "There are a lot of caves, but he has left from the center of the city. No talks with Seif al-Islam."
Two fighters close to Libya's new leaders told the AP that they believe Gadhafi himself is in the town. The fighters, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said they based their suspicion on conversations with residents but did not provide more details.
Bani Walid is the homeland of Libya's largest tribe, the Warfala. In 1993, some Warfala attempted a coup against Gadhafi but were brutally crushed. The masterminds were executed, their homes demolished and their clans shunned while Gadhafi brought other members of the tribe to dominance, giving them powerful government jobs and lucrative posts.
However, Deputy Defense Minister Mohammad Taynaz told the AP that the former rebels don't know where Gadhafi is, and said the fugitive leader could still be hiding in tunnels under Tripoli.
He said the manhunt was not a focus for his men.
"Our priority is to liberate all of Libya," he said. "Once the country is free, there will be nowhere for him to hide in Libya."
Taynaz and Sharif both said that the former rebels are receiving no assistance from their NATO allies in the hunt, although the alliance, which launched its air campaign against Gadhafi's regime in March under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians, has continued to hit loyalist targets since Tripoli's fall.
The alliance said airstrikes Tuesday around Sirte – Gadhafi's hometown – hit six tanks, six armored fighting vehicles and an ammunition storage facility, among other targets. They also targeted the Gadhafi loyalist strongholds of Hun, Sabha and Waddan.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also told reporters in the Czech capital of Prague that the military alliance's sole aim in Libya is to guarantee the safety of the country's civilian population.
"I have no information whatsoever on his (Gadhafi's) whereabouts," Fogh Rasmussen said. "He is not a target of NATO's operation."
Convoys of former regime loyalists, including his security chief, fled across the Sahara into Niger this week in a move that Libya's former rebels hoped could help lead to the surrender of the last bastions of his support.
In Niger's capital, Niamey, Massoudou Hassoumi, a spokesman for the president, said Gadhafi's security chief had crossed the desert into Niger earlier this week.
Mansour Dao, the former commander of Libya's Revolutionary Guards who is a cousin of Gadhafi as well as a member of his inner circle, is the only senior Libyan figure to have crossed into Niger, said Hassoumi.
He added that the group of nine people also included several pro-Gadhafi businessmen, as well as Agaly ag Alambo, a Tuareg from Niger who led a failed uprising in the country's north before crossing into Libya, where he was believed to be fighting for Gadhafi.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said 20 to 25 military and senior officials were in the convoy.
The Libyan loyalists are being held in government villas in Niger's capital and are being closely monitored by Nigerien authorities, Nuland told reporters. None are subject to United Nations sanctions. Authorities in Niger are speaking with them to determine their status and intentions.
She said Niger has been in contact with Libya's new leaders to discuss the fate of the detainees and their property, and it is taking measures to strengthen its borders.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. has urged Libya's neighbors, in particular Niger, to detain Gadhafi and members of his family if they seek refuge in another country.
Hassan Droua, a representative of Sirte in the rebel's National Transitional Council, said he had reports from witnesses that a convoy of cars belonging to Gadhafi's son, Muatassim, was headed for the Niger border loaded with cash and gold from the city's Central Bank branch.
Algeria confirmed last week that the ousted leader's wife, his daughter, two of his sons, and several grandchildren had crossed into Algeria.
The West African nation of Burkina Faso, which borders Niger, offered Gadhafi asylum last month. On Tuesday, Burkina Faso distanced itself from Gadhafi, indicating he would be arrested if he went there.
Libya's new rulers, meanwhile, took a symbolic step toward shifting their administration from the eastern city of Benghazi to Tripoli with the arrival of Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the former rebels' acting Cabinet, in Tripoli.
Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard in Tripoli; Hadeel al-Shalchi in Wishtat, Libya; Dalatou Mamane in Niamey, Niger; Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi, Libya; and Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.