Contrary to fiery rhetoric and bared scimitars, rebel officials in Libya announced they would delay their assault on the Sirte for another week to allow Qaddafi-loyalists to negotiate a settlement.

The rebels had threatened a full military assault for Saturday, but officials say they will hold off in the hopes of avoided bloodshed.

Rebel fighters have encircled Sirte, one of the last places under the control of forces loyal to fugitive strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Meanwhile senior diplomats are meeting in Paris for a major international conference on Libya's future.

Members of Libya's caretaker rebel government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), are at the meeting, hosted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

The NTC is likely to ask Western diplomats for their continued help in security matters, as well as their advice on a future transition to democracy.

The NTC controls most of the country, after a dramatic assault on Tripoli last week in which the capital fell after an operation co-ordinate with Nato airstrikes.

Qaddafi has not been seen in public for months, with rumours spreading that he has taken refuge in Sirte, Bani Walid or Sabha - the only three places still loyal to him.

Sirte, Qaddafi's birthplace and the home of his tribe, is the main target for the NTC fighters stationed east and west of the city.

They have staked out an approach from the south as they aim to force surrender while tribal elders negotiate with both sides to avoid bloodshed in the city.

Correspondents say the elders now accept the NTC has seized control of the country, but they have not yet persuaded the most zealous Qaddafi loyalists to surrender.

Local NTC official Hasan Banai told the BBC forces would give the talks another week.

Another NTC spokesman Mohammad Zawawi told Reuters news agency that the deadline had been extended because there had been progress in the negotiations.

The BBC reported the message has also been broadcast on local radio, but it remains to be seen whether fighters on the ground will be happy to wait for another week.

The strength and resolve of the remaining Qaddafi loyalists is unclear, and his inner circle appears to be divided.

In separate audio messages played on Arabic TV channels on Wednesday, two of his sons gave conflicting accounts of their intentions.

Saif al-Islam said he would fight to the death; his brother Saadi said he was negotiating with the rebels to avoid bloodshed.

Which bother will win out – or whether the rebel rank-and-file has the patience to wait and see – remains to be seen.

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