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Qaddafi bastion Sabha falls to NTC forces; new government to be announced in 7-10 days

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One of the last three main bastions of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has been largely taken over by forces of the provisional government a month after he was toppled, an official said on Wednesday., as Libya’s first formal government is expected to be named within 10 days.

Sabha -- deep in the North African state’s Sahara desert -- has been holding out along with Bani Walid and Qaddafi’s hometown Sirte since the fall of the capital Tripoli on Aug. 23.

“We control most of Sabha apart from the al-Manshiya district. This is still resisting, but it will fall,” National Transitional Council military spokesman Ahmed Bani told Reuters.

NTC fighters occupied the center of Sabha on Wednesday after taking the airport and a fort the day before, CNN reported on Wednesday, citing one of its correspondents in the town.

NTC forces have faced stiffer resistance than expected in their efforts to take Bani Walid and Sirte and have had several major assaults repulsed by heavy fire from pro-Qaddafi forces.

There were reports earlier that Qaddafi himself may be hiding in the town, along with his most politically prominent son, Saif al-Islam, but NTC fighters in Sabha have reported no sign of them.

"Success of the Libyan revolution"

Libya’s first formal government since Qaddafi’s ouster will be named within 10 days, officials said late Tuesday, as world powers hailed the African state’s fledgling leadership in New York, as the African Union announced its recognition of Libya’s de fact ruling council.

With the new Libyan flag flying at the United Nations headquarters, interim government leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil thanked all countries who had helped the “success of the Libyan revolution,” which he said cost at least 25,000 lives.

Libya has reverted to the flag that was used from 1951 until 1977 when Qaddafi, who ruled for nearly 42 years, introduced a green flag for his Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, or people’s republic.

U.S. President Barack Obama, meeting Jalil for the first time, was among those who feted the country's rulers in the wake of a more than six-month armed struggle to overthrow Qaddafi fighters, some of whom continue to resist.

“Today, the Libyan people are writing a new chapter in the life of their nation,” Obama said, warning Qaddafi loyalists to lay down their arms, and promising that NATO-led air strikes would continue until they yield, according to AFP.

At a special summit, the United Nations and world leaders promised to help the new government with its campaign to take the remaining territory held by Qaddafi fighters and to move towards democracy and free elections.

“After four decades of darkness, they can walk the streets, free from a tyrant,”" Obama said, noting that “so long as the Libyan people are being threatened, the NATO-led mission to protect them will continue.”

Today, the Libyan people are writing a new chapter in the life of their nation

U.S. President Barack Obama

Libya new goverment

Libya’s interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril unveiled the timeline for a new administration.

“I expect the government to be announced within a week, 10 days maximum from now,” said the number two official in the National Transitional Council, the rebel body whose forces ousted Qaddafi.

“Most of the work has been done. It is a question of the number of ministries and the location of the ministries,” noting that all could all be in the capital, Tripoli, but it was possible they could be split.

The transitional council was based in Benghazi in the east of the country, whereas Tripoli is in the west.

“For a country which was absent from any democratic process for 42 years from any institutions, from any democratic culture, what’s taking place is natural,” Jibril said, alluding to the war-torn country’s new structure.

The African Union (AU), which had long held out against according Libya’s seat to the NTC, on Tuesday finally announced it was recognizing the new leadership after weeks of foot-dragging that had caused divisions on the continent.

The AU, which frequently has been criticized for its ponderous reaction to events on its doorstep, said in a statement it was ready to support Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) in its efforts to build an inclusive government.

South Africa, the continent’s pre-eminent economic power which has a major say in AU policy, also said on Tuesday it would recognize the NTC, ending a long-standing relationship with Qaddafi, according to Reuters.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, welcoming Libya’s new leaders into the international community, said the Security Council had acted to protect the Libyan people from violence.

“Today, we must once again respond with such speed and decisive action -- this time to consolidate peace and democracy,” Ban added.

I expect the government to be announced within a week, 10 days maximum from now

Mahmoud Jibril, NTC

Qaddafi still on the run

Qaddafi, who remains on the run, told his remaining loyalists in Libya that the new regime was only temporary.

“What is happening in Libya is a charade which can only take place thanks to the (NATO-led) air raids, which will not last forever,” he said in the message aired by Syria-based Arrai television.

“Do not rejoice and don’t believe that one regime has been overthrown and another imposed with the help of air and maritime strikes,” he added.

The recording was the first by Qaddafi since Sept. 8, when he denied reports he had fled to Algeria or Niger.

It was released after the new leadership’s forces said they captured the airport and a garrison in his southern redoubt of Sabha, and fighting raged in two of his northern strongholds.

Sporadic rocket fire and mortar exchanges continued to shake Sirte on Tuesday, witnesses said, although the new leadership’s forces have reduced their use of heavy artillery since Sunday in a bid to give families a chance to flee.

Meanwhile in New York, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a plea for support in all of the Arab countries whose populations have stood up against strong-arm leaders, according to AFP.

“When we saw the people taking to the Arab streets to call for liberty and democracy we took some time to respond as we were astonished at what we were seeing” in Tunisia, Egypt and then Libya, Sarkozy said.

He said the Arab demonstrations had given the international community a “responsibility to take action.”

Heavy fighting

Fighters making their way back from the front line said they were meeting heavy resistance from loyalists at a place called Khamseen, 50 km (31 miles) east of Sirte, and were unable to respond because they lacked the firepower.

“The military base is not supporting us with enough ammunition,” said Alnoufy al-Ferjany, the commander of a military brigade called Martyrs of Alhawry.

Abdul-Salam al-Ebadi, 44-year-old math teacher who lives on the outskirts of Sirte, said the anti-Qaddafi forces were encouraging them to leave because they’re in the range of weapons from both sides.

“We hear a lot of fighting, but we don’t know where it is because we have to hide in our houses,” he told The Associated Press. He was leaving with his elderly father in the passenger seat as part of a 10-car convoy of 50 to 60 people.

Revolutionary forces on the western outskirts of the city said they were encouraging residents to leave so they could move in with heavy weapons coming in from Misrata.

“Our guys are going inside the city to give the families what they need, water and fuel so they can leave,” field commander Mohammed Mebeggan said as NATO warplanes flew overhead. “We are giving them the opportunity to leave. Today is the last day.”

In Tripoli, the EU Head of Mission said that Libya, a conduit to Europe for African migrants and a source of weapons for arms smugglers because of its war, will not be able to control all its borders for a long time due to the task’s complexity.

“The needs are very complex and the list is very long,” Jim Moran told Reuters in an interview.

“They’ve never really had the capability to properly control their borders. They probably won't be able to have it for quite a long time to come, given the enormous challenges ahead.”