TRIPOLI (Reuters) - The voice of Muammar Gaddafi boomed out from his hiding place on Thursday, denying he had fled Libya and cursing as rats and stray dogs those whose efforts to start governing in his place are being frustrated by his diehard followers.
"We will not leave our ancestral land," Gaddafi said in what Syria's Arrai TV said was a live broadcast from somewhere in Libya. "The youths are now ready to escalate the resistance against the rats in Tripoli and to finish off the mercenaries."
"Our resolute Libyan people, the Libyan land is your own," said the 69-year-old who ran the country since he was 27 until two weeks ago. "Those who try to take it from you now, they are intruders, they are mercenaries, they are stray dogs."
Backing up his words, a cannonade of Grad missiles flew out of Bani Walid, a desert town south of Tripoli where a hard core of loyalists -- estimated by their opponents at about 150 -- are under siege by the new interim government. Some of its commanders suspect Gaddafi himself might be hiding inside.
Two of the defenders were killed and one of the siege force wounded in overnight skirmishing, though a military spokesman for the National Transitional Council said the new rulers would abide by a truce until Saturday to allow negotiated surrenders at Bani Walid and Gaddafi's home town of Sirte, on the coast.
"We can do it within two hours maximum," Ahmed Bani said of taking over Bani Walid. He said he believed Gaddafi's son and heir-apparent Saif al-Islam was there, though he did not share the belief of some others in the NTC that his father was.
Referring to the arrivals this week of senior Gaddafi aides in Niger, across the Sahara desert, which prompted speculation that could be an escape route, Bani said: "He's a fox. Maybe he wants us to believe that he's out (of Libya) but he's inside ... close to the border so that in an emergency he can escape."
In remarks which clearly indicated he was speaking after the reports from Niger were published, Gaddafi said: "This is not the first time that convoys drive in and out of Niger."
BACK TO BUSINESS
Despite the sweeping and sudden nature of their victory in Tripoli two weeks ago after six months of civil war, the new leadership is still struggling to impose its authority across the capital and the rest of the sprawling, oil-rich desert nation which is home to just six million people.
The stalemates around Sirte, Bani Walid and south into the desert town of Sabha -- all pro-Gaddafi bastions -- means the original rebel stronghold of Benghazi is still largely cut off from Tripoli, an 800-km (500-mile) drive away to the west.
NTC leaders have said they hope to be pumping oil again next week, and the new head of the central bank briefed the media on Thursday to assure Libyans and their foreign business partners that the bank had not been looted by fleeing members of the old regime. Business as usual was the watchword.
In another nod to getting down to government, the interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril was making his first appearance in Tripoli on Thursday since the uprising. But there is still considerable doubt, contradiction and hesitation about moving the operations of the NTC from Benghazi to the capital.
Some of that delay appears to stem from long-standing regional rivalries and from a sense that Tripoli may not be a safe place for every Libyan official, as potentially rival militias coalesce around the rebel brigades which swept in to the city from different towns and provinces, eager for a share of power that for 42 years was in the hands of one man only.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen assured Libyans the Western military alliance whose air power helped topple Gaddafi will keep up the pressure.
"NATO and our partners will continue the mission as long as the threat remains, but not a minute longer," Rasmussen said. "Gaddafi and the remains of his machine must realise that there is nothing to be gained from more fighting."
Nevertheless, Western officials are keen to play down the extent to which they will -- or can -- help track Gaddafi down.
The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, said Gaddafi's capture might not signal the end of the campaign: "It isn't clear that if he were to be taken out that the whole thing would necessarily collapse; we just don't know that.
"We do know that if he doesn't have the capability to pose a threat to civilians, then it doesn't really matter."
A diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, repeated alliance statements that NATO was not searching for Gaddafi and suggested its ground surveillance did not cover the south of Libya, which borders countries to which Gaddafi might flee.
"The operations plan that we adopted limited the area of operations to the coastal area," he said.
"It is very expensive and difficult to monitor the entire country, which is mostly desert and very big," he said. "Since this was fundamentally about protecting people, rather than watching sands, this was where the resources were located."
(Reporting by Mohammed Abbas, Christian Lowe and Alex Dziadosz in Tripoli, Sherine El Madany in Ras Lanuf, Maria Golovnina in Wishtata, Barry Malone, Sylvia Westall and Alastair Macdonald in Tunis, Ahmed Tolba and Edmund Blair in Cairo, Daniel Alvarenga in Lisbon, David Brunnstrom in Brussels and Joseph Nasr in Berlin; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Peter Graff)