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Libya militias prepare to retake Bani Walid from Gaddafi loyalists

Chris Stephen near Bani Walid


Fighters return to their old frontline after war crimes suspects are released and four soldiers are killed in attack on local garrison

January 26, 2012

A powerful sense of deja vu grips the men of Libya's national guard as they mass for battle in the freezing desert outside Bani Walid, the new frontline of a war most had thought was long over.

Last October, many of these same fighters battled their way into this desert town, one of the last pro-Gaddafi redoubts to hold out against the rebels.

Now they are back again after fighting this week resulted in the deaths of four soldiers and forced the closure of a small government garrison. Several dozen former Gaddafi administration officials arrested for war crimes in recent weeks were sprung from jail during the uprising.

The town, home to the powerful Warfalla tribe, has become a no-go area for government units. The militias, drawn from units across Libya, are ready to launch a new offensive unless local leaders allow them back in ľ and round up war crimes suspects.

"There are 300 pro-Gaddafi guys in that town," says Suleiman Hatir, a fighter from the eastern town of Tobruk. "They have committed crimes and they are living in Bani Walid."

Fighters here agree with the assessment UN special envoy Ian Martin gave to the security council in New York on Wednesday in which he said the fighting was not part of a pro-Gaddafi uprising.

The real problem, Martin said, lay in the weakness of the ruling National Transitional Council, which has faced protests against its perceived lack of transparency, most notably concerning the destination of the country's swelling oil revenues.

The frontline is the same as it was last October, a small desert settlement named al-Estada, no more than a collection of sand coloured huts, a mosque and a shop, 30 miles north of Bani Walid. Pro-Gaddafi graffiti have long been whitewashed out, replaced by revolutionary slogans rendered in red, black and green paint.

The weather, however, is very different. The fighters now look fat in winter combat jackets of as many different camouflage patterns as the origins of their units, hunched against a freezing wind that whips off the desert scrub.

Alerts come and go. A convoy of 14 armed jeeps rumbles past towards Bani Walid and a white helicopter lands amid clouds of dust on the road, awaiting the wounded. But with no sounds of battle audible, the helicopter flies away again and the fighters resume their chilly vigil.

Hatir says the fighters hail from units from Tripoli, Misrata, Benghazi, Tobruk and Bani Walid itself, but they have no dealings with the official national army, an anaemic force staffed by former Gaddafi-era officials which is, perhaps wisely, keeping well out of the way, manning a few roadblocks to the north.

The fighters say they are at one with demonstrators in the cities demanding more accountability and democracy from the government. "We are with the protesters," Hatir says. "The militias are united."

Across the street from the shop, a group of migrant workers from Nigeria sit against a wall, having been arrested a few hours before on suspicion of being mercenaries. "We were not in the army," says Sunday Sienda, 21, wearing a grubby Barcelona football shirt. "I am telling you, I have been in Libya two years. I work. I was trying to get to Tripoli."

Their guards suspect otherwise but there is no sign of mistreatment. Finally, after a discussion among commanders, it is decided they are innocent. An hour later, two white Red Cross jeeps arrive to collect them.

Civilians leaving Bani Walid insist they are not pro-Gaddafi and accuse the former rebels of theft and vandalism when the town fell in the autumn. Bani Walid's elders are more circumspect, saying they are in no position to confront the pro-Gaddafi elements who have made the town their home.

Abdul Aziz Guma, a fighter from Tripoli who wears blue leggings under his combat trousers to keep warm, says the war criminals, not the local population, are the target. "We do not want to harm innocent people."

But Osama el-Hadi, a fighter in a grey Wrangler hoodie, is gloomier. "I'm from Bani Walid and I can tell you the reality, which is that 90% of the inhabitants of Bani Walid are pro-Gaddafi. It's just their mentality, it is the way they are."

In some ways, neither the political orientation of Bani Walid nor edicts from central government matter. What matters is whether the elders hand over their war crimes suspects. Failure to do so is likely to see a full-blown assault, meaning further destruction for the town and the crumbling reputation of Libya's new government.


:: Article nr. 85163 sent on 27-jan-2012 02:48 ECT


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