Libya forces extend Sirte surrender deadline

Anti-Gaddafi forces have extended a deadline for loyalists to surrender peacefully in the Libyan city of Sirte.

The rebels had threatened to launch a full military assault on Saturday, but officials say they will allow loyalists another week to negotiate a settlement.

Rebel forces have encircled Sirte, one of the last places under the control of forces loyal to Col Muammar Gaddafi.

Meanwhile senior diplomats are meeting in Paris for a major international conference on Libya’s future.

Members of Libya’s interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), are at the meeting, hosted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The NTC is likely to ask Western diplomats for their continued help in security matters, as well as their advice on a future transition to democracy.

Divided inner circle

The NTC controls most of the country, after a dramatic assault on Tripoli last week in which the capital fell after an operation co-ordinated with Nato airstrikes.

Fugitive ex-leader Col Gaddafi has not been seen in public for months, with rumours spreading that he has taken refuge in Sirte, Bani Walid or Sabha – the only three places still loyal to him.

Sirte, the colonel’s birthplace and the home of his tribe, is the main target for the rebels.

They have fighters stationed east and west of the city, and have staked out an approach from the south as they aim to force Gaddafi loyalists to surrender.

Tribal elders have been negotiating with rebels and Gaddafi loyalists to avoid bloodshed in the city.

Correspondents say the elders now accept that the NTC has won the battle for control of the country, but they have not yet persuaded the most zealous fighters to surrender.

Local rebel official Hasan Banai told the BBC that his forces would give the talks another week.

Rebel spokesman Mohammad Zawawi told Reuters that the deadline had been extended because there had been progress in the negotiations.

The BBC’s Paul Wood, near Ras Lanuf, says the message has also been broadcast on local radio, but it remains to be seen whether rebel forces on the ground will be happy to wait for another week.

The strength and resolve of the remaining Gaddafi loyalists is unclear, and his inner circle appears to be divided.

In separate audio messages played on Arabic TV channels on Wednesday, two of his sons gave conflicting accounts of their intentions.

Saif al-Islam said he would fight to the death; his brother Saadi said he was negotiating with the rebels to avoid bloodshed.

Assets unfrozen

But world leaders and the NTC are already planning for a Libya without the Gaddafis.

Delegates at the Paris meeting are expected to try to hone plans for the transition to democracy, for reconstruction and issues such as enhancing the training of police.

The NTC is expected to press for a further unfreezing of assets, but its delegates will also stress that it does not want any lessening of Nato support as it tries to quell the remaining loyalist pockets.

The EU announced on Thursday that it had lifted sanctions on 28 entities – including oil firms and port authorities – to help the NTC get the economy moving again. The decision will take effect on Friday.

The UK, US and France have unfrozen more than $5bn (£3bn) in Libyan assets this week, and other countries are making similar moves.

On the diplomatic front, Russia is the latest nation to agree to recognise the NTC as Libya’s legitimate government.

About 60 countries are attending the “Friends of Libya” forum in Paris on Thursday afternoon, along with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The meeting comes on the 42nd anniversary of Col Gaddafi’s emergence as the leader of the coup that overthrew King Idris.