BANI WALID/SIRTE, Libya: Libyan interim government forces bent on seizing Moammar Gadhafi’s remaining strongholds fell back after another chaotic attack on the desert town of Bani Walid Sunday, but renewed their battle for the deposed leader’s birthplace of Sirte.
Motley forces of the ruling National Transitional Council have met stiff resistance in Gadhafi’s last bastions, which they must capture before the NTC can declare Libya “liberated” and begin work on a constitution before elections.
Since Tripoli fell to rebels on Aug. 23, rumours have swirled about whether Gadhafi is in Bani Walid, Sirte, the southern desert town of Sabha or elsewhere. His fugitive spokesman told Reuters on Saturday the ousted leader was still in Libya, directing resistance.
Anti-Gadhafi fighters have tried several times to storm Bani Walid, 150 km (95 miles) southeast of Tripoli in recent days. Their latest attempt ended on Sunday with a retreat in disorder under heavy rocket fire from the town’s defenders.
NTC fighters said they had planned for tanks and pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers to lead the attack, but foot soldiers had piled in first without orders.
“There is a lack of organisation so far. Infantry men are running in all directions,” said Zakaria Tuham, a senior fighter with a Tripoli-based brigade. “Our commanders had been told that heavy artillery units had already gone ahead, but when we advanced into Bani Walid they were nowhere to be seen.
“Gadhafi forces were hitting us heavily with rockets and mortars, so we have pulled out.”
A Reuters reporter saw fighters withdraw around two km (more than a mile) after they had stormed into the town, setting off a new round of recriminations among the besiegers.
Anti-Gadhafi fighters from Bani Walid blamed their comrades from elsewhere in Libya for being disorganised and unwilling to coordinate. Those from elsewhere accused some local fighters of being traitors and passing information to Gadhafi loyalists.
Shells whistled above anti-Gadhafi positions and exploded across the desert valley as invisible snipers sprayed bullets from Bani Walid’s rooftops and smoke rose above the town.
NTC forces also attacked Sirte, Gadhafi’s birthplace, firing rockets from the city’s southern entrance and trading fire with Gadhafi loyalists holed up in a conference centre.
“The situation is very dangerous. There are so many snipers and all the types of weapons you can imagine,” said anti-Gadhafi fighter Mohamed Abdullah, as rockets whooshed through the air and black smoke rose above the city.
Medics mopped the floors of a small field hospital on Sirte’s western outskirts as they prepared for more casualties, following bloody, but inconclusive, clashes a day earlier. A doctor said 16 NTC fighters and an ambulance driver had died in Saturday’s fighting. He had also received 62 wounded.
As in many episodes during Libya’s seven-month conflict, the frontlines at Sirte and Bani Walid have ebbed back and forth, with fighters’ shows of bravado colliding with the reality of battle.
Speaking against the roar of NATO jets overhead, one anti-Gadhafi fighter, Mahmoud Othman, said his men were helping families who had fled from Sirte ahead of the next assault
“We don’t want any more bloodshed between us. But if the Gaddafa want more blood, we are ready,” he said, referring to the deposed leader’s tribe. “In the end we want Gadhafi.”
Scores of civilian cars and pickup trucks poured out of the city, with residents describing water and electricity shortages amid street fighting. Gadhafi forces were patrolling the streets in the centre, they said, making their lives a misery.
“The situation is very bad. People are living in terror,” resident Taher al-Menseli, 33, said as NTC fighters searched his car at a checkpoint.
“Gadhafi supporters are trying to convince people the revolutionaries are criminals and that you have to kill them. Even if you don’t believe this, you have to appear convinced.”
Nearby, three young men knelt in the sand beside the road, their hands tied behind their backs. NTC fighters said they had found two assault rifles and ammunition in their car.
Gadhafi’s spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said NATO air raids had killed 354 people in Sirte on Friday night, an accusation Reuters could not verify without access to the city. A NATO spokesman in Naples said previous such reports had been false.
“We will be able to continue this fight and we have enough arms for months and months to come,” Ibrahim said in a call to Reuters via satellite telephone on Saturday.
British warplanes, operating under NATO’s U.N. mandate to protect Libyan civilians, bombed a Gadhafi ammunition dump west of Sirte on Sunday, after destroying an armoured troop carrier and two armoured pickup trucks in the Sirte area the day before, a British military spokesman said.
Outside Bani Walid, NTC fighters captured a man hailing from neighbouring Chad, accusing him of being a Gadhafi gunman.
Shaking with fear, the man, who gave his name as Mohamed Ezzein, whispered that he had nothing to do with the war.
“I’m just a shepherd. What fighting? What fighting?” he repeated from the back of a pickup truck as anti-Gadhafi fighters pushed him around saying: “Don’t lie, don’t lie.”