TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Determined to hunt down Moammar Gadhafi, Libya's new rulers say they have dedicated a special unit of fighters to track the elusive former leader, 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 Gadhafi might be. Small CIA teams are also assisting in the manhunt, according to former U.S. officials.
Gadhafi, who hasn't been seen in public for months, went underground after anti-regime fighters swept into Tripoli on Aug. 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 Gadhafi's inspiring an insurgency against the new leaders.
After more than four decades under his authoritarian rule, Libyans are haunted by the question of Gadhafi's whereabouts, and the country has been awash with rumors that have put him everywhere from deep in a bunker under Tripoli to safe in exile in neighboring Niger or Algeria. On Thursday, Gadhafi himself dismissed talk of his flight, saying in an audio broadcast that he's still in Libya, and exhorting followers to keep fighting.
An anti-Gadhafi fighter, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, 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 Gadhafi 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.
Two chefs working at the villa were detained and documents recovered, the fighter said.
Officials say the most reliable reports, culled from witnesses 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 southeast 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 Gadhafi — he would not say where — and that his capture is "just a matter of time."
"We are tracking his movements," 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 60 kilometer square (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 witnesses to try to pinpoint Gadhafi's location.
"We are tracking the phone calls for his aide, we know he's trying not to use the phone himself," Sharif said. "We are using satellite photos as well."
The former rebels do not have satellites of their own at their disposal, and 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 Gadhafi'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 Gadhafi, and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted Wednesday that the former leader "is not a target of NATO's operation."
Still, Western officials say that some of the rebels' allies are indeed providing a helping hand.
The French intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, 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 wouldn't 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 Gadhafi's whereabouts through satellite-based transmission intercepts, even from Paris or other foreign stations. Gadhafi could have dozens or hundreds of phones to possibly use, and likely would.
Three former U.S. officials have said the former rebels are receiving help in the search from small CIA teams, including former U.S. 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 Gadhafi, one of the former U.S. 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 Gadhafi will be to study what he did in the past, a U.S. official said. In 1986, when the U.S. bombed the Libyan cities of Tripoli and Benghazi, he went to the city of Sabha.
Located in a mountainous region some 400 miles (650 kilometers) south of Tripoli, Sabha would provide the easiest escape route for Gadhafi, with access to Algeria and Niger. However, any country found to be harboring Gadhafi 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 (140 kilometers) southeast 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 Gadhafi's son and one-time heir apparent Seif 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 Gadhafi himself is in the town. The fighters, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said they based their suspicion on conversations with residents.
The city is home to the Warfala tribe, one of Libya's largest, and members of the tribe filled upper ranks of Gadhafi's security forces and government.
The third most likely option is Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown and the base for the ousted leader's tribe, the Gadhadhfa. The tribe has benefited greatly from Gadhafi's rule, during which time he relied heavily on them.
Al-Hadi Embarish, a career army officer who participated in the 1969 coup that brought Gadhafi to power and a regime stalwart since, said he spoke to Gadhafi by telephone on Aug. 20, the day before revolutionary fighters swept into the capital, and the leader was still in his Bab al-Aziziya compound in the heart of Tripoli.
Embarish, who is being held in the capital by Libya's new rulers, said he's not surprised Gadhafi has managed to evade capture.
"He has been planning for this since 1969," he said.
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Paris, Kimberly Dozier in Washington, and Ben Hubbard in Tripoli, Libya, contributed to this report.