Libyan fighters battle for last Gaddafi strongholds

Libyan interim government forces charged back into the besieged desert town of Bani Walid on Saturday, a day after diehard loyalists of fallen strongman Muammar Gaddafi beat them into a humiliating retreat.

The new authorities’ forces were also battling pro-Gaddafi fighters inside the ousted leader’s home city Sirte but making little headway against stiff resistance, while celebrating the capture of the town of Herawa 60km to the east.

Nearly a month since they drove Gaddafi’s forces out of the capital Tripoli, transitional government fighters have gotten mired in sieges of his loyalists’ remaining redoubts, raising doubt over whether they can quickly unite the vast country.

Gaddafi’s spokesperson said the ousted leader was still in Libya and leading resistance. Moussa Ibrahim also accused Nato of killing 354 people in an overnight bombing of Sirte, an accusation that Reuters could not independently verify. The alliance said such accusations in the past had been false.

A column of National Transitional Council (NTC) pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft machine guns and fresh ammunition rushed into Bani Walid as dusk fell across Libya’s interior desert.

“Gaddafi forces attacked the checkpoint so our troops went in.
There is a lot of fighting inside the city right now,” senior regional NTC official Abdullah Kenshil said.

The day before, NTC fighters seeking to capture Bani Walid had beat an embarrassing retreat under withering fire, and they spent much of Saturday.

Other NTC forces have entered Sirte from the west and taken Herawa to the east, but have not been able to dislodge tenacious Gaddafi fighters from the Mediterranean coastal city.

Ibrahim, the deposed leader’s spokesperson, contacted Reuters by satellite telephone to say Gaddafi was still in Libya, leading the “resistance” against his foes.

“We will be able to continue this fight and we have enough arms for months and months to come,” he said.

He said Nato air strikes on Sirte had hit a residential building and a hotel, killing 354 people. More than 700 people were wounded and 89 were missing from that bombing, he said, giving a total death toll for 17 days of more than 2 000 killed.

There was no way to verify the account, as pro-Gaddafi-held parts of the city were inaccessible. Nato has repeatedly denied in the past that its bombings—authorised by the United Nations to protect civilians—have killed many civilians.

“We are aware of these allegations,” Colonel Roland Lavoie, spokesperson for the Western military alliance, said in Brussels. “It is not the first time such allegations have been made. Most often, they are revealed to be unfounded or inconclusive.”

‘Liberation’ on hold
Nearly a month after Gaddafi’s foes overran Tripoli, Libya’s interim council is unable to declare all of the oil-producing North African nation “liberated” and begin a timetable for drawing up a democratic constitution and holding elections.

Outside Bani Walid, NTC fighters blamed each other, their commanders and traitors for the previous day’s defeat.

“When we entered the city, snipers shot at us from the front and traitors shot at us from the back,” said fighter Abushusha Bellal. “They always play tricks and shoot us in the back.”

One fighter, Nuraldin Zardi, told Reuters his unit had missed the order to retreat and had found itself trapped and isolated inside Bani Walid hours after their comrades had fled.

“We will not rely on our commanders any more,” he said, reflecting growing dissent in NTC ranks. “We will do everything ourselves and take our own decisions.”

The first of what NTC fighters said would be an extra 1 000 men from Tripoli and elsewhere began arriving near Bani Walid.

But Gaddafi forces are also getting reinforcements and are throwing much of their fire power into Bani Walid to protect one of Gaddafi’s sons and another “big fish” hiding there, NTC official Abdullah Kenshil said.

“We already know that Saif al-Islam is there. But we believe someone even more important is there,” he told reporters. Asked whether this was Muammar Gaddafi, Kenshil indicated this was the case. Both men are wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Kenshil added that extra pro-Gaddafi troops had arrived from Sirte, 160km to the north-east, to reinforce resistance at Bani Walid—under siege for nearly three weeks. “There are a lot of small valleys and passages ... they have withdrawn from Sirte to reinforce Bani Walid,” he said.

In Sirte, anti-Gaddafi fighters battled street by street for the third day running, dodging sniper, assault rifle and rocket fire from loyalists perched on the city’s rooftops.

Orange flashes of gunfire mixed with dust and black smoke over the sand-coloured buildings of the seaside city, as scores of machinegun- and rocket launcher-mounted trucks snaked through its streets.

Pro-NTC soldiers said they had been battling for Sirte on three fronts—from the west, the south and the east entrances—but had been advancing slowly.

“There’s been fighting by the sea and in the city,” said one fighter who did not give his name. “We are gathering and then advancing. We are retaking it step by step.”

East of Sirte, pro-NTC fighters danced in the streets of the town of Herawa, captured on Saturday after days of fighting. They sang, “Gaddafi, we will burn you,” and ripped down posters of the former strongman, stamping on his face in the dirt.

But after a mosque where they set up a base came under heavy fire, the fighters scrapped plans to press on and reinforce comrades who entered Sirte from the west.

“Answer me! Answer me!” one pro-NTC fighter sobbed as he cradled the body of his friend, killed by shrapnel wounds to his head. - Reuters

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