Libyan interim government forces bent on seizing former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s remaining strongholds fell back after another chaotic attack on the desert town of Bani Walid yesterday, but renewed their battle for the deposed leader’s birthplace of Sirte.
The motley forces of the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) have met stiff resistance in Qaddafi’s last bastions, which they must capture before the NTC can declare the country “liberated” and begin work on a constitution before elections.
Since Tripoli fell to rebels on Aug. 23, rumors have swirled about whether Qaddafi is in Bani Walid, Sirte, the southern desert town of Sabha or elsewhere. His spokesman said on Saturday that the ousted leader was still in Libya, directing resistance.
Anti-Qaddafi fighters have tried several times to storm Bani Walid, 150km southeast of Tripoli in recent days. Their latest attempt ended yesterday with a disorderly retreat under heavy rocket fire from the town’s defenders.
NTC fighters said they had planned for tanks and pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers to lead the attack, but foot soldiers had piled in first without orders.
“There is a lack of organization so far. Infantry men are running in all directions,” said Zakaria Tuham, a senior fighter with a Tripoli-based brigade. “Our commanders had been told that heavy artillery units had already gone ahead, but when we advanced into Bani Walid, they were nowhere to be seen.
Anti-Qaddafi fighters from Bani Walid blamed their comrades from elsewhere in Libya for being disorganized and unwilling to coordinate. Those from elsewhere accused some local fighters of being traitors and passing information to Qaddafi loyalists.
NTC forces also attacked Sirte, Qaddafi’s birthplace, firing rockets from the city’s southern entrance and trading fire with Qaddafi loyalists holed up in a conference center.
Scores of civilian cars and pickup trucks poured out of the city, with residents describing water and electricity shortages amid street fighting. Qaddafi forces were patrolling the streets in the center, they said, making their lives a misery.
“The situation is very bad. People are living in terror,” resident Taher al-Menseli, 33, said as NTC fighters searched his car at a checkpoint. “Qaddafi supporters are trying to convince people the revolutionaries are criminals and that you have to kill them. Even if you don’t believe this, you have to appear convinced.”
Qaddafi’s spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said NATO air raids had killed 354 people in Sirte on Friday night, an accusation that could not be verified without access to the city. A NATO spokesman in Naples, Italy said previous such reports had been false.
“We will be able to continue this fight and we have enough arms for months and months to come,” Ibrahim said in a call to Reuters via satellite telephone on Saturday.
British warplanes, operating under NATO’s UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians, bombed a Qaddafi ammunition dump west of Sirte yesterday, after destroying an armored troop carrier and two armored pickup trucks in the Sirte area the day before, a British military spokesman said.