Fighters for Libya's interim revolutionary government declared the loyalist stronghold of Bani Walid "completely liberated" on late Tuesday evening.

"Qaddafi's troops left their vehicles behind and even changed into civilian clothing so they would be hard to find. There is no resistance in Bani Walid any more. Most of Qaddafi's troops have fled, and those who remain are not causing problems," Musa Yunis, the overall commander of NTC forces in the city, told AFP.

The fall of Bani Walid, where rebel fighters have been repeatedly bloodied by well-organized and determined defenders in recent weeks, is a major breakthrough.

But rebel forces are still bogged down in the symbolically important city of Sirte, fugitive strongman Muammar Qaddafi's birthplace, the final bastion of active Qaddafi resistance. The rebel's interim government has said it will not declare Libya fully liberated until Sirte falls.

International media outlets have routinely referred to Bani Walid and Sirte as the last bastions of resistance to the new regime, but frequently fail to take note of strong pro-Qaddafi sentiments in the south of the country, as well as his easy mobility there.

Mahmoud Jibril was quoted by the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat Tuesday as saying that the ousted leader is moving between Niger, Algeria and the vast southern Libyan desert, where he has been trying to recruit fighters from Sudan to help him establish a separate state in the south, or to march to the north and destabilize the new regime.

The report could not be confirmed, but it underscored fears that the inability to catch the elusive Qaddafi, who escaped with two of his sons after revolutionary forces swept into Tripoli in late August, would allow him and his supporters to mount an insurgency.

"Qaddafi has two options: either to destabilize any new regime in Libya or to declare a separate state in the south," Jibril was quoted as saying, adding there was evidence he would try to do so without elaborating.

Qaddafi loyalists have mounted sporadic strikes on Libya's oil infrastructure, which is needed by the new regime to produce the critical economic lifeblood they need to stabalize the country.

Suggesting  the US also was concerned about the possibility of Qaddafi mounting an extended insurgency, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a visit to Tripoli Tuesday that she hoped Qaddafi would be captured or killed.