NORTH OF BANI WALID/EAST OF SIRTE, (Reuters) – Libyan fighters trying to capture one of Muammar Gaddafi’s last strongholds battled for control of the desert town of Bani Walid on Saturday and Gaddafi loyalists hit back with rockets.
Despite the bombardment, columns of vehicles drove toward the front line, with fighters in pick-up trucks shaking their fists in the air and shouting “Here come the Libyans.”
“We are going in today,” Abdullah Kanshil, an official of the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), told reporters outside the town, 150 km (95 miles) southeast of Tripoli.
“Civilians will be protected. We are already inside the city and we have found rocket launchers in the houses. We have thousands of fighters,” he said.
Kanshil said about 1,000 Gaddafi soldiers were defending the town — far more than the 150 previously estimated.
“They are launching Grad rockets from private houses so NATO (warplanes) cannot do anything about it,” he said.
Heavy fighting erupted around Bani Walid and the coastal city of Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace, on Friday, a day ahead of a deadline for a negotiated surrender set by the NTC.
NTC officials said the truce was effectively over, paving the way for what could prove the final battles of a civil war that evolved from February’s popular uprising against Gaddafi.
Now that his 42-year rule has ended, diplomats said Britain plans to submit a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council early next week to start easing sanctions against Libya and establish a modest U.N. mission in the country.
But NTC forces which finally overran the Libyan capital on August 23, must still capture Bani Walid, Sirte and the Gaddafi-held town of Sabha in the far south, as well as find the deposed leader, before they can declare Libya liberated and set the clock ticking for elections and a new constitution.
And in Bani Walid, NTC forces have a battle on their hands.
“I know that yesterday they did breach the city, but they met very heavy resistance, so we had to withdraw because they were hitting us with everything they’ve got,” said Jalal al-Gallal, an NTC spokesman in Tripoli.
Akram Ramadan, a fighter outside Bani Walid, said after overnight skirmishes: “Gaddafi gangs are resisting very hard, they have mercenaries, volunteers and snipers.”
Two Gaddafi soldiers and one NTC fighter were killed in Friday’s battles, an NTC doctor said, while 11 NTC fighters were wounded and another was hurt by a rocket on Saturday. Kanshil said four or five civilians died in overnight fighting.
Battles also began outside Sirte on Friday in response to barrages of rockets fired by pro-Gaddafi forces. The NTC said it had also dispatched hundreds of fighters toward Sabha.
“There are people going from Jadu, from Zintan, from Tripoli, there is a mixture,” NTC fighter Abu Aziz Selem told Reuters as he rushed out of the capital with a Kalashnikov assault rifle slung over each of his shoulders.
Anti-Gaddafi forces outside Bani Walid believe some of Gaddafi’s sons, and possibly even the fallen leader himself, are holed up in the town.
In a defiant message broadcast on Thursday, Gaddafi said he was still in Libya to lead the fight against what he called “rats” and “stray dogs” who had taken over the capital.
Interpol issued arrest warrants for him, his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, all wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes.
NIGER ESCAPE ROUTE
Niger, which has taken in several of Gaddafi’s fugitive aides and generals, said it would respect its commitments to the Hague-based ICC court if Gaddafi or his sons arrived.
A convoy of 12 Libyan vehicles and two Nigerien military vehicles left Niger’s northern city of Agadez in the direction of Niamey on Friday afternoon, a Reuters witness said.
The convoy was believed to contain a group of 14 former Gaddafi officials, including General Ali Kana and General Ali Sharif al-Rifi, that had reached Agadez on Thursday..
Hisham Buhagiar, the military coordinator of the NTC’s hunt for Gaddafi, said on Friday he had indications his quarry was in or near the town of Birak, some 700 km south of Tripoli. NATO forces had bombed the area late on Thursday, he said.
“We thought he was in Birak. I saw NATO heavily bombed Birak. They’re following the same trail,” he said.
“We always talk,” Buhagiar said of his relations with NATO, which since March has bombed Gaddafi forces to enforce a U.N. resolution aimed at protecting Libyan civilians.
He said he would move to Sabha, near Birak, within two days to pursue the chase. Gaddafi is said to rely on loyal tribes to protect him in the south, where the NTC has little sway.
Sabha, deep in the desert, has been cut off from the rest of Libya since soon after Tripoli fell. Little information has emerged from the town of 100,000 people, home to many sub-Saharan African migrants.
“We are not seeing many people leaving. How can they?” Khalid al-Riahi, an NTC commander outside Sabha, told Reuters by phone. “They have no money, they can’t afford to buy fuel, which is scarce and more expensive. The city is too remote to have regular supplies and the road is not safe at all.”
While the NTC seeks to extend its territorial grip on Libya, some signs of political discontent have emerged in Tripoli where disparate military factions are jostling for influence and in Benghazi, the eastern cradle of the revolt.
Hundreds of people marched from a charred former Gaddafi compound in Benghazi on Friday night criticising what they called “climbers” and “opportunists” in the NTC leadership, many of whom are defectors who once served under Gaddafi.
“Some of the executive committee (cabinet) are blood-suckers and thieves … They should be in court,” said one protester, an auditor who gave his name only as Shukri.
A memorandum signed by 56 political organisations, mostly from eastern Libya, also decried an NTC roadmap for governance in a post-Gaddafi era, saying it “does not express the desires of the street nor the wishes of the liberal people.