Libyan rebels advance on two critical Qaddafi strongholds

After holding off on attacking Bani Walid and Sirte for weeks, Libya's rebels have launched their assaults on the two remaining Qaddafi strongholds.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Anti-Qaddafi fighters shout 'God is the greatest' as they head to the front line, north of the besieged city of Bani Walid on Sept. 16. The rebels entered the town of Bani Walid Friday after their position came under attack.

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The Libyan rebels advanced today on two of Muammar Qaddafi's last-remaining strongholds, which have rapidly dwindled in number in recent weeks.

According to the Associated Press, the rebels entered the town of Bani Walid today and are making their way to the center after laying siege from the town's perimeter for two weeks. They also converged on Sirte, Qaddafi's hometown, late Thursday. The BBC reports that there are only four towns left under pro-Qaddafi control – those two, and the inland towns of Sabha and Jufra.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) was hesitant to stage an assault on Bani Walid because it feared alienating the powerful Warfallah tribe there, but this week it warned civilians of an imminent attack and urged them to leave, Reuters reports.

According to Al Jazeera, the rebels are advancing on the coastal city of Sirte from the east, south, west, and along the coast. They have faced fierce fire, slowing their progress toward the city. The rebels also put off an assault on Sirte a couple weeks ago, offering residents a chance to surrender and attempting negotiations to turn the city over peacefully, but both were rejected, Al Jazeera reports. There are some reports that they made it to the city center, but if they did, rebels appear to have been pushed back.

"The fighters advanced into the city centre, clashing with snipers holed up in a high-rise office tower – and with members of an elite unit of Gaddafi troops barricaded in a residence of the leader on the beach," according to Al Jazeera, which spoke with rebel leaders in the city.

If the rebels capture Sirte, they will control Libya's entire Mediterranean coastline, the Guardian notes.

Although the two strongholds remain in pro-Qaddafi hands, the NTC and the international community are plowing ahead with nation-building efforts. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron came to Tripoli Thursday to celebrate the rebels' victory and pledge international assistance while emphasizing that only the rebels could take credit for their revolution.

“What we are building [not only] applies to Libya, but all Arab people throughout the world who want to liberate themselves from their chains,” said Mr. Sarkozy at a press conference in Tripoli, according to The Christian Science Monitor. “France and Europe will be at their side, for peace, for democracy, and for economic progress…. This message applies to the 21st century, it is the sense of history that works towards reconciliation and not toward war.”

One of the key challenges facing the NTC is reining in the anti-Qaddafi militias across the country, left over from the civil war. With only two major battles left – Sirte and Bani Walid – many of the men who turned out to fight now have nowhere to go. If they are not dispersed and disarmed, they could become a destabilizing factor in the shaky new democracy, according to the Monitor. "Libya’s new leaders have frequently stated their wish to avoid the pitfalls that befell Iraq after the US invasion in 2003 sparked a civil war and insurgency. These leaders were quick to note that Libya’s revolution was homegrown, and not a foreign occupation."

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