A year to the day after Muammar Qaddafi was killed, a town long tarred as sympathetic to him is under attack by government-aligned militias in what many Libyans describe as settling unfinished business.
Libya’s government wants the town of Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli, to hand over suspects accused of kidnapping a militiaman from the city of Misurata credited with having helped run Qaddafi down last year. In recent days a tense standoff has turned violent.
For many in Bani Walid, the affair confirms their longstanding complaints of persecution in post-Qaddafi Libya. For the country’s new leaders, it is yet another test of their ability to assert their authority while managing the militias upon whom Tripoli relies to help keep order.
“The campaign to liberate the country has not been fully completed,” said Mohamed Magarief, president of Libya’s congress, speaking late yesterday on Libyan TV and quoted by Reuters. He said delays in integrating militias into state security forces have led to a degree of “chaos” in Libya.
“And the chaos has lured others to kidnappings, stealing, and to create non-legitimate prisons,” Mr. Magarief said. “What has happened in Bani Walid in the last few days falls under this…. it has become a safe haven for a large number of those who are outside of the law.”
One such outlaw, it seems, was Khamis Qaddafi, a son of Muammar Qaddafi thought to have died in last year’s revolution. He was reportedly killed today during fighting in Bani Walid, according to a statement from the spokesman of Libya’s congress, Omar Hamdan, cited by Britain’s The Guardian newspaper. The exact circumstances of his death remain unclear.
Former Qaddafi regime spokesman Moussa Ibrahim may also have been in Bani Walid recently, according to wire services. Known for his unswerving defense of Qaddafi’s regime to foreign media last year, Ibrahim disappeared as that regime collapsed in August 2011. However, his exact movements remain unclear. According to a statement from the prime minister’s office quoted by Reuters and Agence France-Presse, Mr. Ibrahim was arrested today in Tarhouna, which lies on a major road between Bani Walid and Tripoli. Also citing the statement, The Associated Press states that Mr. Ibrahim was fleeing Bani Walid.
Doubts about Bani Walid's loyalties
The current trouble in Bani Walid began last month when Omran Shaban, a Misuratan militiaman who reportedly found Qaddafi hiding in a drain culvert last year, died from injuries his family say occurred during two months of captivity in Bani Walid.
For many Libyans, Shaban’s fate confirmed suspicions that Bani Walid harbors Qaddafi loyalists. The town largely stayed out of last year’s revolution and fought back against attempts to enter it by rebel forces amid rumors that Saif al-Islam Qaddafi was hiding there.
As talks over surrendering Shaban’s alleged kidnappers got under way, pro-government brigades mainly from Misurata ringed Bani Walid. Many in the town say it has suffered undue persecution since Qaddafi’s fall.
“We’re not for Qaddafi,” says Meftah Jabbara, a law professor in Bani Walid who took part in the recent talks. “We’re for Libya. We’re not living in the past.”
According to Mr. Jabbara, talks broke down after Misurata refused to release around 150 Bani Walid residents he said were detained there. A government deadline on surrendering Shaban’s alleged kidnappers came and went, and skirmishes broke out.
Barring potential last-ditch mediation by leaders from eastern Libya who might be trusted in Bani Walid, further negotiation with Tripoli and Misurata is all but futile, says Jabbara.
“When they kill your children and your old men, how is dialogue possible?” he says. “Our men are ready to die, and if so they will die as martyrs.”
Meanwhile, it’s unclear how firmly leaders control pro-government militias meant to act as government muscle. Today, Magarief today condemned the recent escalation in fighting at Bani Walid in a statement cited by Libya’s Libya Herald newspaper.
At least a dozen people have been reported killed so far, with numbers hard to verify. Greater suffering is feared if fighting continues, says Soaade Messoudi, a spokeswomen in Tripoli for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The organization has twice visited Bani Walid in the last two weeks to deliver medical aid, she says. “We are urging all the parties to act with caution and respect human lives, medical staff, and medical facilities.”