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Special Libyan unit hunting Gaddafi

Libya's new rulers say they have dedicated a special unit of fighters to track elusive former leader Muammar Gaddafi, listening in on his aides' phone calls, poring over satellite images and interviewing witnesses.

Although leads come mostly from on-the-ground tips, help is also coming from France and other Western countries, according to a French intelligence official.

Satellite-based transmission intercepts of suspicious phone calls try to pinpoint where Gaddafi might be. Small CIA teams are also assisting in the manhunt, according to former US officials.

Gaddafi, who has not been seen in public for months, went underground after anti-regime fighters swept into Tripoli on August 21.

Capturing the ousted ruler would allow the former rebels to seal their grip on the country and shut the door on the possibility of Gaddafi inspiring an insurgency against the new leaders.

After more than four decades under his authoritarian rule, Libyans are haunted by the question of Gaddafi's whereabouts, and the country has been awash with rumours that have put him everywhere from deep in a bunker under Tripoli to safe in exile in neighbouring Niger or Algeria.

On Thursday, Gaddafi himself dismissed talk of his flight, saying in an audio broadcast that he is still in Libya, and exhorting followers to keep fighting.

A former rebel fighter, speaking on condition of anonymity, said revolutionary forces stormed a villa on Tripoli's outskirts last week acting on a tip.

The fighter, who took part in the operation, said they believe Gaddafi was at the villa and escaped less than an hour before the raid through a secret tunnel. Computers were on and cups of tea were still warm, he said, indicating the occupants had just fled.

The fighters detained two chefs working at the villa and recovered documents.

Officials say the most reliable reports, from eyewitnesses and informants, put the fugitive leader in or near one of three remaining strongholds of loyalist support - his hometown of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast, the city of Bani Walid south-east of Tripoli, or the city of Sabha deep in the southern desert.

Anis Sharif, a spokesman for the Tripoli military council, said the former rebels have a unit of more than 200 "special forces" leading the manhunt in collaboration with the operations room in the capital.

He claimed they have located Gaddafi - he would not say where - and that his capture is "just a matter of time".

"We are tracking his movements," Mr Sharif told the Associated Press. "He's moving in a small convoy of cars trying to avoid any attention from Nato or the rebels, but successfully we have located a 40 square mile area where he's moving. He's trying not to stay in the same place for more than two or three hours."

The operation is drawing on technology, tips from people on the ground and eyewitnesses to try to pinpoint Gaddafi's location.

"We are tracking the phone calls for his aide, we know he's trying not to use the phone himself," Mr Sharif said. "We are using satellite photos as well."

The former rebels do not have satellites of their own at their disposal, and Mr Sharif would not say who was providing them with the satellite images, only that they were from "different sources".

Nato, which has deployed spy planes, drones and satellites to the skies above Libya in addition to the warplanes that have carried out more than five months of airstrikes against Gaddafi's forces, could provide a bevy of intelligence material to help in the hunt.

But both Nato and Libyan officials have said the alliance is not helping track down Gaddafi, and Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted on Wednesday that the former leader "is not a target of Nato's operation".

But Western officials say that some of the rebels' allies are indeed providing a helping hand.

The French intelligence official said the help is mainly through communication intercepts, and declined to say whether Western agents were on the ground. During the Libyan civil war, France had about 50 special forces on the ground, pulled from the military and France's main spy service, the DGSE.

In theory, such on-the-ground help would be useful only in catching high-frequency communications, such as walkie-talkies, which would not be enough to speak with the outside world, according to the official.

The official said the assistance is more about "triangulation" of signals and trying to pinpoint Gaddafi's whereabouts through satellite-based transmission intercepts, even from Paris or other foreign stations. Gaddafi could have dozens or hundreds of phones to possibly use, and probably would.

Three former US officials have said the former rebels are receiving help in the search from small CIA teams, including former US special operators on contract to the intelligence agency, as well as a small number of advisers from British and French special operations teams.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

CIA officers on the ground will touch base with sources who have kept them informed throughout the battle to oust Gaddafi, one of the former US officials said. But the agency does not yet have officers in sufficient numbers or the human intelligence network built on the ground to help the rebels conduct an effective manhunt, the official added.

One key to tracking Gaddafi will be to study what he did in the past, a US official said. In 1986, when the US bombed the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, he went to the city of Sabha.

Located in a mountainous region some 400 miles south of Tripoli, Sabha would provide the easiest escape route for Gaddafi, with access to Algeria and Niger. However, any country found to be harbouring Gaddafi would face enormous international pressure to send him to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, Netherlands.

Another option is Bani Walid, about 90 miles south-east of Tripoli. Fighters have surrounded the city, trying to negotiate its surrender.

Abdullah Kenshil, the chief negotiator for the rebels in Bani Walid, told reporters outside a field clinic in Wishtat that Gaddafi's son and one-time heir apparent Saif al-Islam appears to be one of those hiding in the area.

Two fighters close to Libya's new leaders told the AP that they believe Gaddafi himself is in the town. The fighters said they based their suspicion on conversations with residents.

The city is home to the Warfalla tribe, one of Libya's largest, and members of the tribe filled upper ranks of Gaddafi's security forces and government.

The third most likely option is Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown. Located on the Mediterranean coast, the city is home to the ousted leader's tribe, the Gadhadhfa. The tribe has benefited greatly from Gaddafi's rule, during which time he relied heavily on them.

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