, TRIPOLI, Aug 31 – Libya Wednesday marked the first Eid al-Fitr feast in 42 years free of Muammar Gaddafi’s yoke, as rebels proclaimed a “right to kill” the fugitive and gave his forces three days to surrender.
Tens of thousands of people gathered at Tripoli’s landmark Martyrs’ Square to mark the start of the Muslim three-day holiday that follows the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, kneeling in prayer as thFey rejoiced in the collapse of Gaddafi’s rule.
Men, women and children poured from dawn into the seafront site – formerly known as “Green Square” – decked out in their holiday best, as women ululated in triumph and spontaneous cries of joy erupted.
“This is the best holiday of my life,” said Adel Masmoudi, who at 41 was born the year Gaddafi seized power.
An imam leading the 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 fallen leader’s name.
With most of Libya overrun by NATO-backed rebel fighters, and Gaddafi’s wife, daughter and two sons taking shelter in neighbouring Algeria, the whereabouts of the 69-year-old himself however remained a mystery.
Omar Hariri, head of the rebels’ military affairs, said he believed Gaddafi had not left the country.
“The information I have is this: it is 80 percent certain that Gaddafi is still in Libya,” Hariri told AFP in Tripoli, adding that rebels suspected he is hiding either in Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli, or in the outskirts of the capital.
He stressed, however, that since Libya is in a state of war information changes rapidly.
“We think he is in Libya,” Ahmed Darrad, who is charged with overseeing the interior ministry until a new government is elected, told AFP late Tuesday.
“It is our right to kill him,” said Darrad.
“He is killing us. He is a criminal and an outlaw. All over the world if the criminal does not surrender, it is the right of law enforcers to kill him.”
Catching Gaddafi is a primary goal for the rebels although negotiations are still under way for the surrender of regime loyalists in Sirte, his hometown.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chief of the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC), said in an interview published Wednesday by Egypt’s state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, that he wanted Gaddafi arrested alive so he could be brought to justice.
“I believe he is in Libya, and I hope he is arrested alive so he can be brought before a fair trial for his crimes against the Libyan people,” he said.
Abdel Jalil on Tuesday gave the loyalists until Saturday to surrender or face the “final battle” of a more than six-month uprising against Gaddafi’s autocratic regime.
The rebel leader told reporters in their eastern stronghold of Benghazi the ultimatum was offered to mark the Eid al-Fitr feast.
Talks are under way with civic and tribal leaders in a number of towns, including Sirte, in an effort to avoid bloodshed, but more fighting could be imminent as rebel fighters massed to the east and west of the town.
“From Saturday, if no peaceful solution is in sight on the ground, we will resort to military force,” Abdel Jalil said, warning that Gaddafi “is not finished yet.”
NATO also said Gaddafi’s influence remained potent despite him being on the run.
“He is displaying a capability to exercise some level of command and control,” Colonel Roland Lavoie, military spokesman of the NATO air mission in Libya, told a news briefing via video link from his headquarters in Naples.
Lavoie said NATO air strikes were now focused along the corridor between Bani Walid and Sirte.
In its latest operational update issued on Wednesday, NATO said its warplanes had hit a command and control facility, three tanks, 12 armed vehicles, as well as a military facility, command post and radar at Sirte.
It said it also destroyed a munitions dump and a number of military facilities and weapons at Bani Walid.
Rebel military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani told a news conference in Benghazi that his forces were “ready for a final military battle,” describing Saturday as “zero hour.”
“We have been given no indication of a peaceful surrender… We continue to seek a peaceful solution, but on Saturday we will use different methods against these criminals,” he said.
The rebels’ fledgling new administration meanwhile received a major boost to its finances with clearance from a UN sanctions committee for Britain to release $1.6 billion in seized regime assets to pay for emergency relief.
In Moscow, reports said Wednesday that the envoy of President Dmitry Medvedev for Africa will attend Thursday’s conference for “Friends of Libya” in Paris.
“Mikhail Margelov is going to Paris for the meeting after receiving an invitation,” a source in the Russian foreign ministry told Interfax.
Russia had earlier appeared to be keeping its distance from the conference, after refusing the join the international Contact Group on Libya during the conflict and vehemently criticising the Western air campaign.