Fierce resistance by Moammar Gadhafi loyalists entrenched in two strongholds has stalled the rebels' final push for complete control over Libya.
Three weeks after the fall of Tripoli appeared to herald the end of Libya's brutal civil war, the protracted battle over the loyalist bastions of Bani Walid and Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown, has dashed hopes of a speedy "declaration of liberation" that would start the clock ticking on a transition to democracy.
Libya's new rulers say that capturing the towns, along with the remote southern stronghold of Sabha, is just a matter of time. They insist they've been slowed by unsuccessful attempts to negotiate surrender deals with tribal leaders _ with two envoys from the negotiation team killed Sunday.
However, the former rebels may have underestimated the continued support for Gadhafi in Bani Walid and the other strongholds, which had been favored by the old regime with jobs, investments and other perks.
Arguments among anti-Gadhafi fighters have further complicated the assault, especially in Bani Walid, home to the Warfala, Libya's largest tribe with about 1 million people, or one-sixth of the country's population.
In recent days, fighters who had rushed to the front from other towns complained bitterly about being kept out of the battle by their comrades from Bani Walid, who told them they do not want outside help. The out-of-town fighters said Bani Walid natives at times prevented them from searching homes or carrying out arrests of relatives who were on the Gadhafi side.
The fall of Tripoli in late August _ after a six-month civil war with NATO airstrikes aiding the rebels _ marked the collapse of Gadhafi's 42-year rule and turned the dictator into a fugitive. The rapid disintegration of Gadhafi's forces in the capital, home to nearly 2 million people, raised expectations that the remaining pockets of resistance would be captured quickly.
But die-hard Gadhafi loyalists who withdrew to the remaining bastions have been digging in, preparing for the expected assault by rebel forces.
Two of Gadhafi's sons _ al-Saadi and Seif al-Islam _ reportedly were in Bani Walid at some point after the fall of Tripoli, exhorting loyalists to keep fighting. Another son, Moatassem, allegedly was seen in Sirte to rally the troops. The elder Gadhafi has been doing the same in audio messages sent from hiding.
The son al-Saadi, however, has crossed into neighboring Niger to join other family members in the country, said the spokesman for Niger's government, Amadou Morou.
On Sunday, anti-Gadhafi fighters returning from fierce street battles in Bani Walid said they felt demoralized and outgunned. They said they had come under heavy attack from rooftop snipers and loyalists firing mortars and Grad rockets. Some said Gadhafi loyalists also spread oil and flammable materials on uphill roads to slow rebel convoys.
NATO said Sunday that its warplanes hit a series of targets near Bani Walid a day earlier _ a tank, two armed vehicles and one multiple rocket launcher. Airstrikes also pounded targets around Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, and the towns of Waddan and Sabha in the southern desert.
"All of Gadhafi's friends and his people are inside and they won't let it go," said Ahmed Issa, a 20-year-old fighter from the coastal town of Khoms. "They will fight until the end and they have much better weapons than we do."
With a return of Gadhafi to power clearly out of the question, the strength of resistance has been puzzling.
Analyst Abdulaziz Sager said those negotiating with tribal leaders and Gadhafi loyalists may have not offered sufficient inducements for surrender. "There has not been a clear signal that if they surrender, they will be forgiven," said Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. Gadhafi also has enough money, even on the run, to keep buying support, said Sager.
Gadhafi's staunchest supporters who would likely face criminal prosecution if caught have no incentive to give up.
The fugitive dictator has also made special efforts to shore up support in his birthplace of Sirte, some 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.
"Since the liberation of Tripoli, Gadhafi has addressed Sirte people four times on the local radio, threatening them if they cooperated with the rebels," said a spokesman of the anti-Gadhafi forces, Hassan Dourai. "Residents live in fear. They deal with us secretly. No one dares show any sympathy with the revolution, or he will be committing suicide."
Dourai said Gadhafi loyalists have rounded up dozens of Sirte residents suspected of cooperating with the rebels. Several thousand loyalists in town are heavily armed, while anti-Gadhafi fighters only have a few smuggled weapons, he said.
A spokesman for Libya's new interim government, Jallal el-Gallal, acknowledged that resistance is considerable.
"They have had time to reinforce themselves and their positions, and it seems the number of forces facing this resistance is insufficient," he said, adding that it's up to military commanders to beef up the forces.
At times, there seemed to have been little coordination between the political leaders and anti-Gadhafi fighters on the ground. Politicians repeatedly announced surrender deadlines for Bani Walid and Sirte, only to be contradicted by impatient fighters eager to launch assaults immediately.
A continued delay in capturing the remaining strongholds is raising new questions about the ability of Libya's new leaders to take charge. There have been hints of emerging divisions in the senior leadership, and they have been struggling to impose their authority in the capital and other areas.
A standoff over Sirte and Bani WAlid could also have far-reaching political implications.
At some point, the leader of the new interim government, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, is to issue a "declaration of liberation" _ something he is unlikely to do before the remaining Gadhafi bastions have been captured.
The revolutionary leaders have promised general elections in no more than two years once that declaration has been made.
Laub reported from Tripoli, Libya. Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed reporting.