By Robert Birsel
BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi in his hometown of Sirte are urging people to fight or be killed by bloodthirsty attackers, complicating efforts to arrange a peaceful surrender of the city, opponents of the Libyan leader said on Monday.
Anti-Gaddafi forces are approaching Sirte, 450 km (280 miles) east of Tripoli by road, from east and west. They say they would rather not fight for the city but talks seem stalled.
"I can't say there's any real progress because we have difficulty with the regime people from Tripoli," said Hassan Droy, the National Transitional Council (NTC) representative for Sirte, who is based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
"They're trying to tell the people that the battle is no longer for Gaddafi but to protect themselves," he told Reuters, adding that three days ago a message from Gaddafi was broadcast in Sirte, urging people to fight to save themselves.
Gaddafi's own whereabouts are unknown.
Another spokesman, Mohammad Zawawi, said Gaddafi loyalists were telling people that the rebels wanted to kill them. "But we are sending a clear message that our troops won't kill anyone."
That message had been passed via satellite telephone to rebel sympathizers in Sirte, who were spreading it, he said.
Sirte, which Gaddafi developed from a small village to a city of 100,000 people, is the ousted leader's last bastion on the coast, where most of Libya's six million people live. Many of the city's residents belong to his Gaddafa tribe.
NTC spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah said most people in Sirte were against Gaddafi. "But it's the minority of Gaddafi loyalists who have the weapons," he said. "They're using all kinds of scare tactics but it's a losing strategy."
Abdulmolah said NTC forces had heard that about 45 Gaddafi soldiers and officers had been executed in Sirte after refusing to fight for what they saw as a lost cause. There was no independent confirmation.
Zawawi said the main force of fighters from the east was almost 100 km from Sirte, although small units had pushed ahead. The force coming from the west was about 30 km from the city.
Some fighters were moving to cut a road linking Sirte with the desert town of Sabha, another Gaddafi stronghold about 500 km (310 miles) to the southwest, Zawawi said.
NATO aircraft have been bombing military positions and ammunition dumps of pro-Gaddafi forces in Sirte.
Human rights groups say both sides have executed prisoners, but Droy said the message to Gaddafi loyalists was that there would be no reprisal killings when Sirte is taken.
"We have our people in Sirte ready to take control. They are ready to put these people safely in jail where they will wait for a trial."
Anti-Gaddafi forces say time is on their side and there is no deadline for the defenders to give up, adding that the city is without power and is running short of food and medicine.
"Day by day, the people who are trying to get the Gaddafi soldiers to put down their guns are getting stronger and stronger," said Droy.
Abdulmolah said: "It's a waiting game in favor of the liberating forces."
(Editing by Giles Elgood and Alistair Lyon)