Monday, September 12, 2011

Battle of Bani Walid & Escape to Niger

Libya NTC rebel fighters ambushed in Bani Walid by Gaddafi loyalists

FIGHTERS backing the new regime in Libya have met strong resistance in the Libyan oasis town of Bani Walid, where they came under sniper fire from forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi today.

But while some fighters put some of the blame on a poorly organised advance by the fighters, others suspected betrayal from some inside their own ranks.

"I did not fire one shot today because there was nothing clear to shoot at... They are shooting at us from above and we can't see anyone," said commander Abdel Monem, 28, from Zawiyah.

Fighters backing the National Transitional Council (NTC) had made a disorganised advance into uncharted territory, he added.

Novices had been mixed in with the veterans and there had been almost no co-ordination between them.

"In one word: it was chaos," he said.

The oasis town, a stronghold of the powerful Warfalla tribe, is one of the last places still loyal to Gaddafi.

Efforts by the NTC in recent days to negotiate a peaceful occupation have foundered.

Taking Bani Walid will be no easy task, as pro-Gaddafi fighters within the town have the higher ground.

The main challenge, said Monem, was snipers perched on the hills and residents armed by Gaddafi.

They have been led to expect the worst from the NTC force after an intense propaganda campaign that has depicted them as killers and rapists.

"Civilians are afraid of us because Libya TV said we are rats that will rape their daughters," he said.

The lack of electricity in the Bani Walid area had prevented the NTC from countering that message, he added.

All afternoon, a local pro-Gaddafi radio station broadcast an appeal to residents to rally against the invaders.

NTC fighters backed by armoured vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft guns arrived today on the edge of Bani Walid, 180km from Tripoli.

The fighters said they had routed Gaddafi loyalists and snipers from Wadi Dinar, a valley in the shadow of Bani Walid, during their Saturday advance towards the town.

By Sunday, they were sending in scouting missions to probe the defences.

Clashes erupted in the afternoon in the neighbourhoods of Al-Mansila and Al-Hawasim, according to one fighter, Ahmed al-Warfalli, and two shells crashed into a hill six kilometres north of the town.

NATO warplanes and explosions could be heard throughout the day.

There were contradictory accounts however as to how far rebels had advanced into the city and the strength of the resistance they had encountered.

Military commanders insisted that the main assault had yet to begin.

"Today we are still on standby and waiting for orders," said one commander, General Atiya Ali Tarhuni, earlier in the day.

Sami Saadi Abu Rweis, a fighter returning from Bani Walid with a wounded friend in tow, reported snipers everywhere.

"They are shooting at us from two kilometres away. Bani Walid is full of arms - every household has them.

"There is some type of treason going on. People pretended to be with the rebels but are really with Gaddafi."

Fighters released their frustration by firing their weapons into the air as rumours of betrayal spread like wildfire, raising tensions in the ranks.

"We need better organisation and cooperation from Bani Walid's residents," concluded Monem. He was hesitant to bring one hundred of his men based in the capital to a battle seemingly doomed to be a suicide mission, he added.

"You can bring 1000 men but without organisation nothing will go right."
NIAMEY | Mon Sep 12, 2011 9:30am IST By Nathalie Prevost

(Reuters) - A loud banging on the door of his Tripoli home told Agali Alambo, a former Nigerien rebel leader who had worked his way into Muammar Gaddafi's inner circle, it was time to get out.

Alambo, now in Niger's capital Niamey, told Reuters in an interview how he had fled the Libyan capital as it was overrun by forces of the anti-Gaddafi National Transitional Council.

"The NTC was in the city, going from neighbourhood to neighbourhood ... They came to my house and they started knocking on the door but I didn't open," Alambo recalled.

"An elderly woman from next door appeared. When she told them there were women inside and to stop hassling them, they became a bit sheepish. I escaped over the roofs."

Before the uprising against Gaddafi, Alambo, 47, had made himself a key part of the ousted leader's security structures. Thousands of his fellow Tuaregs were regulars in Gaddafi's army, a way for them to earn a better living than back home in Niger.

During his flight, Alambo had to use all his considerable contacts and local knowledge of the desert between Libya and its southern neighbour to make good his escape.

His account provides at least some of the back story to the movements across the Libyan border earlier this week that ended with a clutch of ex-Gaddafi loyalists, including three top generals and a security chief, seeking refuge in Niger.

As NATO-backed rebels advanced on Gaddafi's remaining troops, Alambo's story is also that of an intimate circle of officials around Gaddafi that was beginning to fragment.

"For a month or so we'd had no contact with the Guide (Gaddafi), we didn't know where he was. The telephones didn't work and as soon as you switch on the satellite phone you signal to NATO where you are -- so we didn't use them."

Alambo, who before heading to Libya led the Tuareg rebellion against Niger's government between 2007 and 2009, said it was open season on African migrants -- popularly assumed to be pro-Gaddafi mercenaries -- in his Tripoli neighbourhood.

"Four Africans were gunned down 100, 200 metres (yards) from where I lived and their bodies thrown in the courtyard of a clinic there ... It was absolute chaos."

A friend found him a driver and Alambo fled to Bani Walid, the town of his Libyan wife's family and now one of Gaddafi's last strongholds. There he met up with an old acquaintance, Mansour Dhao, the chief of security brigades, and the two agreed to head to the southern town of Sabha.


After a series of hasty meetings with contacts in the city they concluded there was only safe option: escape through Niger.

"The Algerian border to the west was closed, just after Gaddafi's wife and children went through. On the Chad side, I don't know what is going on but a group of (local ethnic) Toubou fighters loyal to the NTC were blocking the way."

The journey of more than 1,000 km (600 miles) south through the desert to the northern Niger city of Agadez took two and a half days. According to Alambo, it was undertaken only after informing authorities in Niger -- a fact which explains the security escort waiting for them by the border last weekend.

"We passed through the Murzuq triangle (desert in southern Libya), the Salvador (border) pass and then straight down to Agadez. We had three vehicles and a fourth came to meet us with more petrol towards the end," he said.

Their arrival and transfer to Niamey has since been confirmed by Nigerien authorities, who says it took them in on humanitarian grounds and has no reason to arrest them.

They are due to be joined in Niamey by a second contingent of Libyan officials who turned up in Agadez late on Thursday, including General Ali Kana, the Tuareg who led Gaddafi's southern troops, airforce chief Ali Sharif al-Rifi, and Murzuq military commander General Mohammed Abydalkarem.

It is unclear what will happen to them next. That could depend on the outcome of meetings with a delegation of NTC officials expected in Niamey in the next few days.

Niger has said that if Gaddafi or his sons showed up, it would respect its commitments to the International Criminal Court, which wants Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam and his intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi to face trial for alleged crimes against humanity.

Alambo says he has no knowledge now of the whereabouts of Gaddafi, Saif al-Islam or Saadi, another son.

"I can't be sure of anything about Gaddafi's sons," insists Alambo. "I haven't seen then although I heard that Saif al-Islam went up to Bani Walid and then arrived in Sabha around Sept. 3, after us. People said he wanted to carry on resisting ... I didn't see him and I don't know what they are going to do."

(Writing by Mark John; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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