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Middle East

Libyan forces claim capture of Gadhafi stronghold Bani Walid

  • A Libyan musician entertains anti-Gadhafi fighters on the front line in Sirte.

TRIPOLI: Libyan interim government forces said Monday they had raised the country’s new flag over Bani Walid after securing most areas of the desert town – one of the last bastions held by loyalists ousted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Ahmed Bani, the interim government’s military spokesman, told reporters in the capital Tripoli during a news conerence, “90 percent of Bani Walid has been liberated.”

Interim government forces held celebrations Monday in the center of Bani Walid, where they hoisted flags and fired machineguns into the air.

Along with Sirte, Bani Walid is one of the last places where there is still armed resistance against the National Transitional Council.

Colonel Abdullah Naker, head of the Tripoli Revolutionist Council, told Reuters Sunday, “We have reached the city center and have raised the flag.”

Fighters taking part in the assault on Bani Walid told Reuters they had entered the town, which is nestled in rocky hills about 150 kilometers south of Tripoli.

The town has been under siege for weeks, with hundreds of Gadhafi loyalists dug into its steep valleys and hills resisting advancing interim government forces.

As well as ordering the military assault, NTC officials have been negotiating with Bani Walid’s tribal leaders for its surrender.

A group claiming to represent the people of the town offered a truce to Libya’s new government Monday. The tribal groups said they would pledge loyalty to the NTC and take over the town, but demanded in return that the NTC withdraw its forces from the area and lift the siege.

It was not clear last night how the government would respond or whether NTC forces had already completely captured the town. In Sirte, where Gadhafi loyalists have been under siege for weeks, there was little or no sign of the disorganized NTC forces making any progress Monday and, amid chaos and confusion, in some places they had even been pushed back.

A doctor for the medical aid charity Medecins Sans Frontieres in Sirte has estimated 10,000 people remain trapped in the city of 75,000. Many are women and children, some are sick or injured.

NTC tanks and rockets bombarded a small area of central Sirte where they have boxed in the remaining Gadhafi loyalists. Libya’s new leaders say they will only begin the transition to democracy after they capture the city.

Frustration is growing on the front line. Some fighters are irritated their commanders have not ordered a big push to take the rest of the city.

There is also anger between government forces from Misrata to the west and Benghazi to the east, who have accused each other of hitting their allies in “friendly fire” incidents.

“We have lost a lot of martyrs in recent days,” said Mustafa Salim from a Misrata brigade. When Misrata units get close to Benghazi units “it gets harder,” he said. “They fire at us and we fire at them.”

Many NTC fighters abandon their positions at nightfall for more comfortable quarters further from the front line. That allows Gadhafi’s men to infiltrate the lines during the night and fire at them, sometimes from behind.

Meanwhile, a pro-Gadhafi TV channel confirmed the death of the toppled Libyan leader’s youngest son, Khamis, who had been reported killed by National Transitional Council fighters late in August.

Arrai, a Damascus-based broadcaster that has become the favored forum for Gadhafi and his loyalists, said late Sunday that Khamis was killed Aug. 29 in Tarhuna, some 80 km southwest of Tripoli while fighting “enemies of the homeland.”

His cousin Mohammed, son of Gadhafi’s close ally and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, was killed in the same incident, added the broadcaster.

Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Libya’s neighbors Monday not to shelter Gadhafi or members of his entourage who have been indicted by the International Criminal Court.

“We’ve been very active in reminding other countries in Africa of their responsibilities … to apprehend and to hand over to Libya or the ICC any of those people who go on to their territory,” Hague said in Tripoli.

Hague did not say what form the help would take. British air power helped prevent Gadhafi crushing the uprising against him and rebels have said British special forces have been on the ground. Britain has not commented on their whereabouts.

“We’ve made representations to the governments of Niger and Burkina Faso in particular but we don’t know where Gadhafi is, so we can’t solve that one at the moment,” Hague said.

Hague, in Libya for the appointment of a new British ambassador, also said he had raised the issue of the alleged mistreatment of prisoners by Libya’s new interim rulers, who captured Tripoli in August ending Gadhafi’s 42-year rule.

“They say there have been some cases of that, they are determined to act very strongly about it,” Hague told Reuters.  

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 18, 2011, on page 1.
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