Fighters of Libya’s new regime have forced their way into the desert oasis of Bani Walid, one of the last holdouts of Muammar Gaddafi diehards, but encountered heavy resistance. The intensified fighting in the desert town some 170km southeast of Tripoli happened on Sunday, even as the battle eased in the city of Sirte, the other main holdout of fighters backing the overthrown strongman Gaddafi. “We attacked this morning from the southwest. Our men were inside the town this afternoon. But there was heavy resistance from the Gaddafi loyalists,” Jamal Salem, a commander of the National Transitional Council (NTC) forces, told AFP. Salem said the new regime forces “have not retreated”, but by Sunday evening he was unable to specify how far his fighters had managed to advance into Bani Walid.
The NTC forces mounted their fresh assault on the stronghold after launching a barrage of artillery fire against the positions of pro-Gaddafi fighters. Abdallah Kenshil, an NTC official, told local television channel Libya Al-Ahrar that the fighters had reached the town centre, but the claim could not be independently verified. A commander from the city of Zawiyah said three of his men were killed in the fighting. Bani Walid is surrounded by NTC fighters, but their commanders pulled them back last week after suffering heavy losses and to prepare for a new offensive against the 1 500 pro-Gaddafi fighters thought to remain there.
Meanwhile in Sirte on the Mediterranean coast, where fierce clashes between NTC forces and those loyal to deposed leader Gaddafi have raged for a month, Sunday saw a lull with only intermittent shelling and rocket-fire, AFP correspondents said. “We are shelling with tanks and anti-aircraft weapons and then we will send our troops onto the streets,” said Salem Ahmed, a tank commander from the eastern city of Benghazi. Ahmed said the advance was being held up by pro-Gaddafi snipers. But “a few snipers can stop an army. They are very professional. They shoot in the heart, the head, and the chest”, he insisted. The focus of the NTC operations is two seaside residential neighbourhoods, the Dollar and Number Two, where Gaddafi loyalists are holed up.
One NTC fighter told AFP there had been an exodus of civilians from the two areas on Sunday and that the besieging troops wanted to give others the chance to leave. Sunday’s lull contrasted sharply with the previous day when Gaddafi loyalists mounted a fierce counter-attack in Sirte, forcing back the NTC fighters under a barrage of rockets and shelling.
A medic at a field hospital behind the eastern front line said four NTC fighters were killed and 22 wounded in the fighting on that side of the city on Saturday. “Those killed were mainly from sniper bullets. And the wounded were injured by explosions and rocket attacks,” Dr Ahmed Bushariya told AFP.
In the eastern city off Benghazi, officers of the former Libyan army on Sunday defended the institution’s role in the revolution which brought down Gaddafi and pledged its support for the country’s new rulers. The military “fought alongside civilian revolutionaries right from the start of the uprising in February,” insisted General Ahmed al-Gotrani at a conference on preparations for the formation of a new Libyan army. “We backed up the revolutionaries with our experience, our advice, but also with arms and equipment,” said the general, who stressed he was speaking on behalf of the whole army. “Our army was treated with contempt and ignored by Colonel Gaddafi,” Gotrani said, adding that “many soldiers were killed and sacrificed for the revolution.” Gaddafi himself has gone into hiding.
Officials in Bamako, meanwhile, said that more than 400 armed Tuaregs had arrived in Mali from Libya where they fought in Gaddafi’s army. The Libyan nationals of Malian origin crossed into northern Mali aboard a 78-vehicle convoy on Saturday “with weapons and luggage,” a Malian security source said. The repatriation of hundreds of fighters is “a serious worry”, UN special envoy to West Africa Said Djinnit told reporters. The men arrived “in confusion, with big re-entry problems, which has increased the insecurity in the north of Mali”.