ROBERT SIEGEL, host: In Libya, rebel officials say more than 10,000 of their fighters have surrounded Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte. They say they're giving Gadhafi's forces a chance to negotiate a peaceful surrender over the next few days, but they are setting a deadline. If there's no deal by Saturday, the rebels say they will attack. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
COLONEL AHMED BANI: (Foreign language spoken)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Rebel military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Bani told reporters here that zero hour is fast approaching for Sirte. He and other rebel officials say they have no choice but to give their fighters the green light to attack the coastal city, around which NATO war planes have destroyed dozens of military targets in recent days. The officials add negotiations for a peaceful surrender have stalled and rebel fighters are getting restless. Shamsiddin Ben-Ali is the chief spokesman for the rebel's transitional council.
SHAMSIDDIN BEN-ALI: In the end, they cannot leave any areas of Libya still under Gadhafi regime. All of Libya, every inch of Libya has to be liberated.
NELSON: Still, officials are hoping that the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan will provide a cooling off period during which a peaceful end to the standoff can be worked out. That holiday, called Eid al Fitr, begins in Libya tomorrow. Officials say if no agreement is reached, the alternative could well be a bloodbath given that Gadhafi's forces are firmly entrenched in Sirte. That's why the rebels are encouraging residents to leave the city, says council spokesman Ben-Ali.
BEN-ALI: Some have been able to get out. But to be honest with you, the military forces inside Sirte are at the same time preventing, simply because they want to use them in the end as human shields. So it's becoming a difficult situation.
NELSON: Officials in Sirte could not be reached for comment because their cell phones do not connect to those in Benghazi. Gadhafi shut the eastern network down after the uprising that this month ousted him from power. Nor have rebels been able to use the airwaves to get a message of peace and reconciliation to Sirte residents, says the rebels' deputy interior minister, Mustafa al Sagazly.
MUSTAFA AL SAGAZLY: The media of Gadhafi has brainwashed the people there and has informed them that we are coming to kill them, steal their property and rape their women and destroy the whole city.
NELSON: Nevertheless, he and other rebel leaders tell NPR that two of the three main tribes in Sirte appear willing to negotiate, although they aren't the ones with the heavy guns. Some members of the Gaddafa tribe from which the ousted Libyan leader hails are also willing to talk. But the rebels have rejected their demands for amnesty and inclusion in the new government. Fathi Baja is a senior member of the Transitional Council.
FATHI BAJA: We don't want violence, we don't want revenge, that's true, but meanwhile we cannot really accept any dictation from Gadhafi's tribe.
NELSON: What the rebels say they are willing to compromise on is allowing Sirte residents to set up a local council. The residents, including Gadhafi's tribe, may also get to keep some lighter weapons, including their personal guns. But council officials say whether through compromise or battle, Sirte must come under rebel control. Not only is the city cutting off Benghazi from Tripoli, but it's also holding up rebel efforts to capture other towns like Sabha in the south, which sits atop Libya's main water supply.
(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)
NELSON: Back in Benghazi, rebel fighters returning for a brief respite from the front lines say they are ready to take Sirte this weekend. One of them is Colonel Jamal Muhammed Zuweyy.
COLONEL JAMAL MUHAMMED ZUWEYY: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He says the fighters hope the city surrenders peacefully. But if the rebels have to go into Sirte, Zuweyy say he's confident the battle won't last more than a day.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Benghazi.