Ex-rebels allied to Libya’s army attacked a bastion of diehards linked to former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in clashes that left at least 11 dead, underlining the challenges facing the government.
Wednesday’s fighting came exactly a year after anti-regime forces declared the liberation of Bani Walid, 170km southeast of Tripoli, But many still see it as a shelter for regime loyalists and criminal gangs.
“Bani Walid was shelled from three fronts today,” town official Massud al-Waer said, adding that dozens of residents were wounded in the assault on the city, which has been under siege for weeks.
The commander of the ex-rebel group, Libya Shield, said four of his men had been killed and 19 wounded in the fighting for the hilltop town, which remained loyal to Qaddafi during the conflict last year that led to his ouster.
The deputy director of Bani Walid’s hospital, Abdullah al-Mansuri, told reporters that his facility had received another “seven dead people and 75 wounded, including a 14-year-old girl.”
The town came back into focus last month after the death of a former rebel from the city of Misrata who was credited with capturing Qaddafi and was later kidnapped, allegedly tortured and shot in Bani Walid.
The death of Omar ben Shaaban, 22, stoked tensions between the neighboring towns, which found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict last year.
The Libyan National Assembly, elected in July, ordered the Libyan ministries of defense and the interior to find those who had held Omar ben Shaaban hostage for weeks in Bani Walid and authorized the use of force if necessary.
The Libyan army chief of staff said on Wednesday in a statement carried by the official news agency LANA that the army was “ready to enter Bani Walid.”
The statement called on “all parties to exercise self-restraint” so that “units of the regular army can impose the authority of the state.”
Last week, tribal chiefs interviewed by reporters in Bani Walid said that they would refuse the entry of “lawless militias” into the town and said they did not recognize a military authority in Libya.
The weeks-long standoff underlines the challenges facing the authorities in Tripoli as they fight to suppress dozens of militia groups comprising disparate former rebels as they seek to rebuild the nation’s army and police force.