TRIPOLI, Libya — Libya's new rulers believe Moammar Gadhafi may be hiding in the southern desert under the protection of ethnic Tuareg fighters, while two of his sons are holed up in cities besieged by revolutionary forces elsewhere in the North African nation, officials said Wednesday.
Anti-Gadhafi fighters gained control of Tripoli and much of the rest of the country late last month, but the longtime Libyan ruler and his family fled and have been trying to rally supporters from hiding as fighting continues on three fronts – Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, Bani Walid and the southern city of Sabha.
Col. Ahmed Bani, the military spokesman for the National Transitional Council, which is now governing the country, said he couldn't confirm any information about Gadhafi's whereabouts but he could say that Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, is in Bani Walid and another son Muatassim is in Sirte.
Although Bani offered no evidence and did not elaborate, it was the first official confirmation that the revolutionary forces believe they know the location of the two sons since the family fled after Tripoli fell.
Another military official said earlier that the Libyans have intelligence that Gadhafi is hiding in the vast southern desert, possibly in an area near the Algerian border, with help from Tuareg fighters. Ethnic Tuaregs, whose nomadic community spans the desert border of Niger, Mali, Libya, Algeria and Chad, are among Gadhafi's strongest remaining supporters.
"We do believe that he is somewhere in that region and we do know that Tuaregs are supporting him, probably because he's paying them," Abdel-Rahman Busin said, although he acknowledged that the military could not confirm the information.
"It's a very large bit of land to cover. We don't have the people to cover it all and he could move around quite freely," Busin told The Associated Press.
One report suggested Gadhafi was southwest of the desert town of Sabha, Busin said. He also said a recent attack on the border town of Ghadamis raised suspicion that the fugitive leader was hiding in the surrounding region, a vast area near the Algerian frontier. "Possibly they were just creating a diversion," he said.
Pro-Gadhafi gunmen crossed the border from Algeria to attack revolutionary forces in Ghadamis last week, killing at least nine people, local officials said.
Ali al-Mana, the Ghadamis representative on the National Transitional Council, said there was no confirmation that Gadhafi was in the city.
Many fear Gadhafi may still be able to stoke violence from his hiding place, raising concerns about a protracted insurgency.
Bani, the military spokesman, said revolutionary forces were focused on consolidating control over the entire country and would hunt for Gadhafi after all cities were secured.
Speculation has been rife that Seif al-Islam was in Bani Walid and Muatassim in Sirte as both areas have put up a fierce resistance against surrounding revolutionary forces.
The top commander of revolutionary forces in Bani Walid was killed Tuesday night in a rocket attack, Bani said. He said Daw Saleheen was on a patrol in the area, 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, when he was struck by a heat-seeking rocket. Saleheen spent more than 20 years in jail under Gadhafi's regime.
Anti-Gadhafi forces had conducted negotiations with Seif al-Islam in Bani Walid a couple weeks ago, Busin said earlier, but talks about his possible surrender had broken down.
On Tuesday, Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become the former regime's mouthpiece, aired video of Seif al-Islam that it said was taken last week. The same video, however, appears to have been uploaded to YouTube on March 6. A second YouTube video appears to show the same event with an upload date of Feb. 27, less than two weeks after the Libyan uprising began.
Seif al-Islam's last known public appearance was on Aug. 23 in Tripoli. Like his father, he has been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity for the regime's bloody efforts to crush the uprising.
Revolutionary fighters also have been unable to rout regime forces from Sirte on the Mediterranean coast. Libyan fighters pounded regime positions in the city with rocket and artillery fire on Wednesday, sending a black cloud of smoke over Sirte's low-slung skyline.
Dozens of trucks mounted with missiles, anti-aircraft guns and anti-tank weapons streamed toward the front lines on the western edge of Sirte and NATO warplanes roared overhead.
Britain's Ministry of Defense said Royal Air Force and NATO aircraft "were very active" over Sirte on Tuesday. The alliance usually only gives details about strikes the next day.
Maj. Gen. Nick Pope said Tornado GR4s twice conducted precision strikes on a large ammunition and vehicle storage depot that has been serving as one of the main bases for Gadhafi's garrison within the city.
He said six laser and GPS guided Paveway bombs were dropped, scoring direct hits that destroyed multiple military facilities within the depot, including storage bunkers.
Associated Press writers Hadeel al-Shalchi in Tripoli and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.