Ex-Libyan leader’s desert stronghold holds out against prolonged assault
Libyan interim government forces charged back into the
besieged desert town of Bani Walid on Saturday, a day after diehard loyalists
of Muammar Gaddafi beat them back into a humiliating retreat.
Forces loyal to the new authorities were also battling
Gaddafi loyalists on the streets of the ousted leader's home city Sirte. After
days of battles, they celebrated the capture of the town of Herawa 60km east of
Sirte, but have made only slow progress against heavy resistance in Sirte
Nearly a month since they drove Gaddafi's forces from the
capital Tripoli, interim government fighters are bogged down in sieges of
Gaddafi loyalists' remaining redoubts, raising doubt over whether they can
quickly unite the country.
Gaddafi's spokesman said the ousted leader was still in
Libya and leading resistance. Moussa Ibrahim also accused NATO of killing 354
people in an overnight bombing of Sirte, an accusation that Reuters could not
independently verify. The alliance said such accusations in the past had been
A column of National Transitional Council (NTC) pickup
trucks mounted with anti-aircraft machine guns and fresh ammunition rushed into
Bani Walid as dusk fell, after Gaddafi forces shelled a checkpoint, reporters
"Gaddafi forces attacked the checkpoint so our troops
went in. There is a lot of fighting inside the city right now," senior
regional NTC official Abdullah Kenshil said.
The day before, NTC fighters seeking to capture Bani Walid had
beat an embarrassing retreat under withering fire.
In Sirte, NTC forces have entered the city from the west and
captured nearby Herawa to the east, but have not been able to dislodge
tenacious Gaddafi fighters.
Ibrahim, the deposed leader's spokesman, said by satellite
telephone that Gaddafi was still in Libya, leading the "resistance"
against his foes.
"We will be able to continue this fight and we have
enough arms for months and months to come," he said.
He said NATO air strikes on Sirte had hit a residential
building and a hotel, killing 354 people. More than 700 people were wounded and
89 were missing from that bombing, he said, giving a total death toll for 17
days of more than 2000 killed.
There was no way to verify the account, as pro-Gaddafi-held
parts of the city were inaccessible. NATO has repeatedly denied in the past
that its bombing - authorised by the United Nations to protect civilians - has
killed large numbers of civilians.
"We are aware of these allegations," Colonel
Roland Lavoie, spokesman for the Western military alliance, said in Brussels.
"It is not the first time such allegations have been made. Most often,
they are revealed to be unfounded or inconclusive."
Nearly four weeks after Gaddafi's foes overran Tripoli,
Libya's interim council is unable to declare all of the vast North African
nation "liberated" and begin a timetable for drawing up a democratic
constitution and holding elections.
Outside Bani Walid, NTC fighters blamed each other, their
commanders and traitors for the previous day's defeat.
"When we entered the city, snipers shot at us from the
front and traitors shot at us from the back," said fighter Abushusha
Bellal. "They always play tricks and shoot us in the back."
One fighter, Nuraldin Zardi, said his unit had missed the
order to retreat and had found itself trapped and isolated inside Bani Walid
hours after their comrades had fled.
"We will not rely on our commanders anymore," he
said, reflecting growing dissent in NTC ranks. "We will do everything
ourselves and take our own decisions."
The first of what NTC fighters said would be an extra 1,000
men from Tripoli and elsewhere began arriving near Bani Walid.
East of Sirte, NTC fighters danced in the streets of the
town of Herawa, captured on Saturday after days of fighting. They sang
"Gaddafi, we will burn you" and ripped down posters of the fugitive
former strongman, stamping on his face in the dirt.
But after a mosque where they set up a base came under heavy
fire the fighters scrapped plans to press on and reinforce comrades who entered
Sirte from the west.
"Answer me! Answer me!" one pro-NTC fighter sobbed
as he cradled the body of his friend, killed by shrapnel wounds to his head.
Two other fighters were also injured.
In Sirte itself, anti-Gaddafi forces who entered from the
west on Friday encountered fierce resistance..
"Gaddafi's troops are between the houses, there are a
lot of snipers on the roofs," NTC fighter Mabrook Salem said.