ROME, Aug 31- Italy on Wednesday said the fall of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte would signal the end of his 42-year regime, hinting that NATO’s mission was also 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 in an interview with Radio 24.
The NATO mission in Libya “will conclude when Libya is free,” he said, adding that the mission’s current mandate runs out at the end of September.
The mission “has to accompany the fall of the regime to avoid backlashes, actions that the regime could carry out as it pulls back,” he said.
Asked Wednesday where he thought Gaddafi could be hiding, 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.
“Everyone knows that an escape from the country would have been too visible and evidently would not have escaped the notice of NATO, which patrols the territory to carry out strikes but also to identify suspects,” he added.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague has issued arrest warrants for Gaddafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the former head of intelligence Abdullah al-Senussi for crimes against humanity committed against regime opponents.
“He will have to be forced to surrender, surrounded and abandoned by all those who carried out his criminal orders,” Frattini said.
“It’s clear to anyone that whoever gave the orders to burn prisoners, maybe even burn them alive, certainly won’t surrender voluntarily,” he said.
Italy is Libya’s former colonial ruler and it enjoyed close economic and diplomatic ties with the Gaddafi regime before the start of an uprising against the Libyan leader. It has since joined international efforts against Gaddafi.