Fighter Mohammed Omran got a taste of the strong defenses of Bani Walid when his squad of seven probed one of the last loyalist strongholds of Muammar Qaddafi.
Pro-Qaddafi snipers were hiding inside houses at dusk on Friday night. Once they began shooting, the volunteer irregulars were hit with a constant wall of fire: They were pinned down by 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns; then by a barrage of small missiles; then the .50 caliber heavy machine gun, all of them used and reloaded in rapid succession, again and again.
The stalled fight for Bani Walid, which on Sunday awaited only reinforcements and orders from Libya’s new authorities to launch a new offensive, is a critical step – along with the surrender of two other important loyalist strongholds – before Libya is officially declared “liberated.” Then the clock is to start ticking on a timeline to write a new constitution and hold elections.
“I cannot count so many blasts,” recalled Mr. Omran, a four-month veteran of Libya’s revolutionary forces, who once sold women’s clothing in Tripoli. His unit was pinned down until dark; a mortar shell struck a rock nearby, and a shard of stone injured his right heel.
But before Omran’s squad made its getaway, under darkness and despite continued shooting, he says he and his comrades had surrounded and captured five pro-Qaddafi soldiers. They told them to drop their weapons, but “from the beginning they did not stop,” says Omran. “Only when they ran out of bullets did they stop shooting.”
One Qaddafi soldier threw a grenade and tried to run away. They shot him dead immediately.
“They were more than scared,” says Omran of the prisoners. One claimed to be a shepherd; another said he was “with” the rebels from the start. “They expected to be killed. One begged: ‘Don’t cut me, just shoot me.’ ”
Instead, the anti-Qaddafi fighters gave them water and apples, and got them safely to the rear.
Jalil arrives in Tripoli
As the military build-up continues around loyalist cities like Bani Walid, a bastion of Qaddafi’s Warfallah tribe, the chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Abdel Jalil, arrived in Tripoli late on Saturday.
Mr. Jalil’s move from the former rebel headquarters in the eastern city of Benghazi signaled a consolidation of power in Tripoli. Criticism has risen over the apparent reluctance to Libya’s new leaders – known as “rebels” until August 21 – to come to the capital and unify the disparate elements that forced Qaddafi’s fall.
Scuffles broke out, a pistol was waved and Jalil was taken to a safe area upon arrival at a Tripoli airport.
“Brotherhood and warmth – that’s what we will depend on to build our future,” Jalil said at the airport. “We are not at a time of retribution. This is the time of unity and liberation.”
Jalil said all of Libya’s territory must be controlled by anti-Qaddafi forces before they can declare victory. Some NTC leaders suggest that Qaddafi, too, must be caught or killed before that moment.
“Qaddafi still has money and gold,” said Jalil. “There are fundamental things that would allow him to find men. We must focus on our abilities to liberate Bani Walid, Sabha [in the Sahara, 430 miles south of Tripoli], and [Qaddafi’s coastal hometown of] Sirte.”
Despite the victory celebrations that continue in Tripoli, more than three weeks after anti-Qaddafi forces took it over, those loyalist towns are proving more formidable targets.
Bani Walid was surrounded on Sunday, with an offensive expected anytime, though reports suggested open divisions between tribes and different frontlines are complicating the decision to advance. Some 500 anti-Qaddafi fighters have moved toward Sabha in the last two days; and fighting has been taking place on the flanks of Sirte.
“We would like to reassure you about the ethics of the revolutionaries,” said Daw Salaheen, the commander for Bani Walid’s northern front, speaking Saturday at a frontline position two miles north of the town. His message for Bani Walid residents was that it was “not too late to lay down your weapons.” Holdouts were Qaddafi loyalists and mercenaries, he said, while forces gathered at the lip of a nearby hill.
“We ask our citizens to be aware of those criminals, and to be away from them, because they will not hesitate to put you at harm,” said Mr. Salaheen. “Anyone who lays his weapon down and doesn’t fight the revolutionaries, and doesn’t harm the civilians, will be safe in our hands and we will protect him.”
The NTC had sought to end the standoff peacefully. But days of talks foundered – and a week-long deadline extension to surrender passed on Saturday – as it became increasingly clear that Bani Walid would not give up without a fight.
“It’s going to be difficult, because the dogs of Qaddafi – those involved in killing people in all Libya – all of them escaped to Bani Walid,” said fighter Omran, speaking at a school converted to an emergency hospital up the Tripoli road.
Journalists on Saturday were permitted to get to within two miles of the town of 50,000, where electricity still works but telephone lines have been cut by pro-Qaddafi forces, say NTC officials.
Fierce fight for Bani Walid
Anti-Qaddafi forces blasted their guns into the sky and shouted “God is great!” But incoming rifle fire and three grad rockets landed nearby prompting looks of panic on the faces of some fighters.
NATO aircraft could then be heard overhead. The sounds of at least five bombs were then heard, raising clouds of smoke in the distance of Bani Walid. NATO said Sunday that it hit a tank, two armed vehicles, and one multiple rocket launcher in the Saturday strikes near Bani Walid. Airstrikes also targeted the areas around Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, and the towns of Waddan and Sabha in the south.
“Two conditions [loyalists in Bani Walid] give us: Come to the town without weapons, and we want to talk to NATO,” said Abdullah Kanshil, the top NTC negotiator, speaking at that point of the frontline. He said that for loyalists, the former rebel forces – which now control Tripoli and most of the country – remain “non-existent.”
To the demands of pro-Qaddafi forces in the town, said Mr. Kanshil, the NTC replied: “NATO is not in our hands, and we can’t go [into Bani Walid] or they will kill us. So we told them we can’t do that.”
Kanshil said Qaddafi’s sons Saif and Moatissim, as well as regime spokesman Musa Ibrahim, could still be in the town. Mr. Ibrahim had been broadcasting messages from three locations in Bani Walid: a house, a military barracks, and an office for the electricity company, according to Kanshil.
“Those guys, really they want Libya to be a hell,” added Kanshil. “I’m sure they want to use the others to fight for their cause … they will not fight. But they instigate people to fight and fight and fight. But I’m sure when they know, the moment [of defeat], they will leave as they left [Qaddafi’s] Bab al-Aziziya compound.”