WADI DINAR, Libya — Loyalists of Moammar Gadhafi, holed up in one his remaining strongholds, attacked Libyan fighters with mortar rounds and sniper fire Saturday, a sign of the difficulties former rebels face in taking full control of the vast country.
As the battle raged around the town of Bani Walid, the head of Libya's interim administration, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, was set to arrive in the Libyan capital, a major step toward establishing a post-Gadhafi government. Former rebels took control of Tripoli in late August, and Abdul-Jalil's continued absence had raised questions about their ability to take charge.
After the fall of Tripoli, revolutionary forces chased retreating Gadhafi loyalists into three bastions of support for the former regime, including Bani Walid, Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte and the southern town of Sabha. However, it has proven difficult for the anti-Gadhafi troops to capture the three towns, suggesting that the former dictator still commands some support. The fugitive Gadhafi has said he won't surrender and has exhorted his followers to keep fighting.
Revolutionary forces and regime loyalists had been engaged in off-and-on surrender talks in Bani Walid, a town some 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, for more than a week. Fighting erupted on Friday and escalated Saturday.
After midday Saturday, anti-Gadhafi fighters in a desert valley some two miles (three kilometers) from Bani Walid came under heavy attack from loyalists. Loud explosions were heard as mortar rounds struck the area, releasing clouds of dust and smoke. Snipers also targeted rebel fighters, as ambulances sped up and down the main road into town.
Some said disagreements broke out over which group of fighters should lead the assault on Bani Walid. The town is a base of the Warfala tribe, one of Libya's largest.
Bassam Turki, 33, a fighter from Tripoli, said he was told by comrades from Bani Walid that they wanted to drive out the Gadhafi loyalists without the help of forces from other towns. "If Bani Walid (fighters) could liberate the city without our help, why didn't they do this a long time ago?" he said angrily.
At least two anti-Gadhafi fighters were killed, said Abdullah Kanshil, a negotiator with the former rebels. The commander of the assault, Daw Salaheen, called on the city's residents to lay down their arms, saying anyone who does so will be "safe in our hands."
Volunteers asking to join the battle said Saturday they were getting increasingly impatient with the standoff. Dozens crowded around a desk at a mosque in Wishtata, a hamlet about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Bani Walid, to register their names, blood type and other information.
Abdel Wahab Milad, a 26-year-old teacher from the town of Gharyan, drove dozens of miles to the front in a pickup truck with six friends. Dressed in army fatigues, he said he signed up for battle because it was time to "get rid of Gadhafi once and for all."
On Friday, revolutionary forces also battled loyalists near the Gadhafi hometown of Sirte, 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, but withdrew after heavy casualties.
Meanwhile, officials in neighboring Niger said four senior Libyan military officers have entered the country.
Justice Minister Amadou Morou said late Friday that the Libyan chief of staff of the air force, his pilot and the commanders of two Libyan military regions have arrived in Niger. Morou declined to name the officers.
Morou condemned an attempted attack on the Embassy of Niger in Tripoli on Wednesday night by a group of 20 armed men who tried to force their way in. He said the compound is now being offered protection by Libya's National Transitional Council, the political leadership of the former rebels and the closest thing Libya has to a government.
Libya's new rulers had set a Saturday deadline for Gadhafi loyalists in Bani Walid, Sirte, and Sabha, deep in Libya's southern desert, to surrender or face an offensive.