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Loyalists repel anti-Qaddafi forces' push on stronghold of Bani Walid

The fight for Bani Walid – a stronghold of former leader Muammar Qaddafi – is a critical step in the complete 'liberation' of Libya from Qaddafi's rule.

By Staff writer / September 11, 2011

Anti-Qaddafi fighters test-fire weapons and prepare for a final assault on Bani Walid, one of the last loyalist strongholds in Libya.

Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

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Near Bani Walid, Libya

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.

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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.”

Stubborn strongholds

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.

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