TRIPOLI — Libyan forces closed in on Moammar Gadhafi's home town on Sunday, vowing to seize it by force if negotiations failed, and their leaders ruled out any talks with the deposed ruler, other than on the terms of his surrender.
Gadhafi's foes were advancing on his birthplace of Sirte, which straddles the east-west coastal road, but one commander said "liberating" the city could take over 10 days.
Tripoli streets were quiet after sporadic overnight gunfire and explosions in the capital, traumatized by emerging evidence of widespread summary killings that took place during last week's battles to drive Gadhafi out.
But some residents ventured out to hunt for scarce supplies of water, food and fuel. And in Martyrs Square, known as Green Square in the Gadhafi era, traffic police reappeared in crisp white uniforms, directing cars amid a sea of bullet casings.
"I came back to work on Friday. Life is beginning to come back to normal," said one policeman, Mahmoud al-Majbary, 49.
Asked if fighters were obeying the traffic police, he said: "Not yet, we're getting there slowly. We're mainly really here to reassure the people that they are safe."
Libyans may remain fearful as long as the man who subjected them to his capricious will for 42 years remains at large.
Gadhafi, 69, has evaded capture, perhaps intending to lead an insurgency against his disparate opponents grouped loosely under the National Transitional Council (NTC).
"No negotiation is taking place with Gadhafi," Ali Tarhouni, the NTC official for oil and finance, told Reuters. "If he wants to surrender, then we will negotiate and we will capture him."
The Associated Press earlier quoted Gadhafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, as saying Gadhafi was still in Libya and wanted to discuss forming a transitional government with the NTC.
NTC officials say the war will go on until Gadhafi is killed or captured and insist that he, his son Saif al-Islam and his spy chief should be tried in Libya, although they are wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
Sirte, 280 miles east of Tripoli, is a vital prize for anti-Gadhafi forces attacking from east and west. They say they prefer a negotiated handover, but will fight if need be.
"Our aim isn't bloodshed, our aim is liberation," Colonel Salem Muftah al-Refaidy told Reuters during a visit to the eastern city of Benghazi. "We don't want more bloodshed, especially among the civilians -- children, elderly, women."
He said NTC troops were within 100 km of Sirte from the east and were approaching from Misrata to the west.
Refaidy said there was no going back to the past. "After all this bloodshed we can't say, 'Come here Muammar, come here Saif -- we're sorry, take Libya'. It's done. Game over."
In Tripoli, residents queued for bread or scoured grocery shops for food. Many took a stoical view of their plight.
"This is a tax we pay for our freedom. We must endure in this transitional period," said Sanusi Idhan, a lawyer waiting to buy food.
Abdel Salam al-Arabi, 56, a bank worker, said things would improve. "I don't think there's a crisis, but we are having problems with petrol and there are some water shortages. Libya will come back. We have experts, we can do it," he said.
Aymen Mohammed was filling plastic containers with water to supply his neighbours. "There are many people here who don't have water so we're filling the bottles from our well," he said.
But the stench of rotting bodies and burning garbage still hangs over the city. More and more bodies have turned up, some of slain Gadhafi soldiers, others victims of summary killings.
The charred remains of 53 people were found in a warehouse in Tripoli, apparently imprisoned opponents of Gadhafi who were executed as his rule collapsed, Britain's Sky News reported on Saturday. It broadcast pictures of a heap of burned skeletons, still smouldering, in the warehouse.
In the Tajoura district of the capital, local people prepared a mass grave for the bodies of 22 African men who appeared to have been recruited to fight for Gadhafi. One of the dead had his hands tied behind his back.
"The rebels asked them to surrender but they refused," said resident Haitham Mohammed Khat'ei.
New York-based Human Rights Watch reported that Gadhafi's forces may have executed scores of prisoners and killed civilians as rebels overran the Libyan capital last week.
"The evidence we have been able to gather so far strongly suggests that Gadhafi government forces went on a spate of arbitrary killing as Tripoli was falling," Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's North Africa director, said in a statement.
In a sign of the lawlessness now gripping parts of the capital, one of Gadhafi's villas lay looted and abandoned, torn pictures of the fugitive leader scattered in its grounds.
The NTC, which has told its fighters not to carry out revenge killings, is trying to assert its authority and restore order in Tripoli but its top officials have yet to move there from their Benghazi headquarters in the east.
The NTC and the Western powers that backed rebel forces with a five-month bombing campaign are acutely aware of the need to prevent Libya collapsing into the kind of chaos that plagued Iraq for years after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague rejected any idea that Gadhafi could be involved in a transition of power, saying this was unacceptable to the NTC and its foreign allies.
"That regime is finished," he told Sky News. "So that just is not on the cards, we are way past that point."
Hague said Britain favoured putting Gadhafi on trial at the ICC, but added that his fate was for Libyans to decide.
He urged the former Libyan leader to "tell his remaining forces to lay down their arms, to cease this violence so that other people can take forward Libya into a peaceful future."
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.