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Special Report: Main challenges facing Libya | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Libyan provisional government administering the country after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime is facing four urgent challenges for imposing stability and security all over the state which remained under Gaddafi’s rule for 42 years. The challenges are: Completing the liberation of the cities of Bani Walid, Sirte, and Sabha from the remnants of the Libyan colonel’s regiments, confronting the acts of sabotage expected by Gaddafi’s supporters the first of which was carried out on Monday in the Ras Lanuf area, the new rulers’ ability to impose their authority on the borders and crossings between Libya and its neighbors, and the fourth one the ability to capture Gaddafi and bring him to justice.

These challenges come as the National Transitional Council [NTC] intends to announce before the end of next week a new government instead of the present Executive Bureau (the provisional government) to administer the country and which will include more trends, forces, and representatives of the areas. Meanwhile, the NTC has assured the international community in the last few days of its ability to resume the production of oil which was severely damaged since the start of the Libyan revolution on 17 February.

Khalid Nijm, the deputy information minister in the provisional government, talked about these challenges in a telephone interview with Asharq Al-Awsat from Tripoli and said overcoming them was a matter of time and some of them were expected, like the “suicide attack” attempt at the oil area in Ras Lanuf. He expected the revolutionaries to complete their control over all the pro-Gaddafi elements in Bani Walid city (which is the scene of violent clashes between the two sides) within one or two days.

Three weeks after the revolutionaries stormed the capital Tripoli, sources from the battlefront between the revolutionaries and Gaddafi’s regiments in Bani Walid, which lies 150 km to the southeast of Tripoli, are saying that the forces loyal to the Libyan colonel were showing much resistance and using the city’s inhabitants as human shields to prevent the revolutionaries from entering it.

Reuters cited citizens who fled from Bani Walid as saying fierce battles were raging in the city’s streets and that NATO planes were flying over it. But the deputy information minister in the provisional government told Asharq Al-Awsat last night that the revolutionaries were still besieging some pockets in the city and dealing with them in preparation for combing them in full. As to when its complete liberation from Gaddafi’s supporters would be announced, Nijm said “within one or two days.”

Regarding the situation in Sirte which is still under the control of Gaddafi’s supporters and whether it was as complicated as the revolutionaries at the front were reporting, Nijm answered that the situation in Sirte was more difficult than the one in Bani Walid. Simultaneously with the ongoing fighting in Bani Walid, the revolutionaries’ sources from the outskirts of Sirte (450 km to the east of Tripoli and Gaddafi’s birthplace) reported that the fighters were advancing toward it despite being attacked by Grad missiles from Gaddafi’s regiments and their expectations of facing strong resistance.

The deputy information minister acknowledged in his statements to Asharq Al-Awsat that “the situation in Sirte is more difficult than the Bani Walid one because a large number of Gaddafi supporters are still in it. But the revolutionaries are besieging it from the eastern and western sides and, God willing, the situation would be dealt with and the city entered soon.”

Regarding Sabha (around 750 km south of Tripoli) ,one of the cities still loyal to Gaddafi, information received by Asharq Al-Awsat from revolutionaries inside the city that they were in control of it and the regiments were still besieging it from outside and fierce clashes were taking place intermittently at the city’s outskirts. In the city is the largest African community that was naturalized and given Libyan citizenship more than two decades ago by Gaddafi’s regime and this has created over the years frictions between the Libyan natives and the naturalized Africans. Most of them were originally from Chad.

Concerning the situation in Sabha, the Libyan deputy minister reported that the revolutionaries were still inside it dealing with Gaddafi’s security regiments and that seizing control of the city was a matter of time.

About the second challenge facing Libya’s new rulers, namely, dealing with the anticipated acts of sabotage by Gaddafi’s supporters, one of which was yesterday’s Ras Lanuf operation, Khalid Nijm expected the old regime to carry out similar suicide operations and said: “Gaddafi will most certainly seek to create some kind of chaos and confusion. This is the only thing he has now, especially as he still has followers and supporters. There might be some conventional operations whose aim would be to create chaos and instability.”

Regarding Monday’s attack on a refinery at Ras Lanuf, he said “it is a very stupid operation” even though Hamidah al-Ghanim, a Benghazi revolutionaries’ commander, told Asharq Al-Awsat by telephone that around 10 Gaddafi regiments’ vehicles coming from the direction of Sirte attacked the main gate to the oil refinery belonging to “Ras Lanuf Oil and Gas Company”, which was being prepared to be operated with all its crew, killing 15 guards and employees and injuring at least four. Al-Ghanim added that revolutionary forces began to comb the area after the operation to search for other pro-Gaddafi groups. But the deputy information minister downplayed the importance of the incident and said a group of between four and five vehicles carried out the operation and they “tried to carry out a suicide operation and were dealt with. That was an attempt by Gaddafi and his followers to say they exist.” He added that the operation was “very stupid and suicidal because how do you send four or five vehicles to the midst of the revolutionaries?”

Such operations against governmental and oil installations might contribute to the instability, impede the export of Libyan oil, and have an impact on the massive financial revenues that the country’s new rulers need. The sources say that the refusal of Mahmud Jibril, the provisional government’s prime minister, to announce the site from which oil is pumped from new production areas falls within the context of fears that they would be sabotaged by Gaddafi’s remnants. Yet, the “Arabian Gulf Oil Company” in Libya stated yesterday that it had actually resumed oil production from Al-Sarir oilfield in the eastern area.

In reply to a question on whether there was a connection between targeting the Ra’s Lanuf oil site and the talk about exporting oil, Nijm said: “The operation was certainly a message from Gaddafi that he is still a threat and capable of creating confusion and impeding oil production in some oilfields. He wants to say with this that he exists and threatening the export of oil to the West and also capable of creating instability in such (oil) areas. He wants to address a message to the West to carry out a precise review of their calculations regarding the new situation in Libya.”

The question of securing the borders is one of the challenges facing Libya’s new rulers and which was raised by the country’s neighbors and several Western ones which fear the smuggling of weapons looted from the Libyan army’s warehouses during the revolution would reach terrorist groups in the region. The TNC and provisional government are saying they have been seeking for weeks to monitor the borders and organize movement to and from Libya through the main crossing points.

But Khalid Nijm says Libya’s extensive area makes this difficult at present “as Libya as a whole is considered a large continent with very long borders. The issue of controlling them is still very difficult. Control of all the crossings is a logistic matter.”

The long borders that are not well monitored helped the escape of members of Gaddafi’s family to Algeria across Libya’s western borders and to Niger on the southern borders. The revolutionaries are expecting Gaddafi to escape across them to Niger or Chad if the noose is tightened around his hideout which is believed to be somewhere near the cities that have not been liberated yet (Bani Walid, Sirte, or Sabha).

The attempts to capture and bring him to justice inside or outside Libya is considered one of the challenges facing the new Libyan state. Parallel to the combat operations around the non-liberated cities, there are special teams to pinpoint Gaddafi’s hideout inside Libya and arrest him. Khalid Nijm revealed that the revolutionaries were trying to have full control of the southern borders and all the crossings there “but there are roads for infiltration and crossings which all the Libyans know and there is an attempt now to bring them under control as quickly as possible to prevent Gaddafi from escaping.”