Sunday, September 4, 2011

Battle of Bani Walid - Gadhafi's Alamo?

MUAMMAR Gaddafi and his sons may have avoided capture by fleeing through water pipes large enough to hide military vehicles, Libyan rebel commanders believe.

The pipes of the Great Manmade River project, supplying coastal cities with water from a huge natural reservoir beneath the desert, are up to four metres wide. They would provide excellent cover from NATO spy planes hunting for the ousted dictator, said two senior advisers on the rebel military council in Tripoli.

Gaddafi's greatest engineering feat runs for 530km south from the town of Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli, to just north of the oasis town of Sabha.

Rebels believe Gaddafi, who they say was last seen making a telephone call from Bani Walid's small airport, has fled through the pipes towards Sabha while thousands of Libyan army soldiers block the rebels' advance south.

The $US33 billion ($30bn) pipeline project was begun in 1984 and three of its five phases are complete, supplying water to much of the country. But supplies to western Libya, including Tripoli, were shut down on August 21, fuelling speculation the fleeing dictator had a military purpose for the network.

During the past week, rebel forces have massed on the outskirts of Bani Walid.

They have been pursuing the former Libyan leader and his sons since storming the capital on August 20. But days of heavy fighting in the capital, followed by a flurry of negotiations between the rebels, tribal elders and the Gaddafi family slowed down the hunt as NATO monitored Libyan troops in the south of the country.

Gaddafi's wife Safia, his daughter Aisha and sons Mohammed and Hannibal fled to Algeria last week. Rebel commanders believe there is still a chance Gaddafi and at least two other sons thought to be at large in Libya, Saif al-Islam and Saadi, will surrender. Others say the dictator will have used last week's lull in fighting to move closer to the borders with Niger, Chad, Algeria and Sudan.

"He's wily like a fox," said one adviser to Mehdi al-Harati, second-in-command of the Tripoli Military Council.

"We always knew this would be his tactic, but we're worried about causing civilian casualties in some of these towns. It may spark tribal war if we went in heavy-handed."

As they pushed into Tripoli, the rebel commanders expected Gaddafi to embroil them in street fighting while making his escape.

On August 25, rebel forces were still pinned down in the capital's poorer neighbourhoods of Bosleem and al-Hadba, renowned for harbouring Gaddafi loyalists.

Fighting also erupted in the city zoo nearby, rebels using machine guns mounted on utes to fight army troops among the trees.

Further resistance sprang up as the rebels continued to push the Libyan army towards the southern outskirts of the city. Snipers and African mercenaries were said to have held up the rebels, allowing the Gaddafis to make a protected withdrawal.

The following day, as fighting continued to rage in the two neighbourhoods, Gaddafi drove into the headquarters of the Khamis Brigade in southern Tripoli, said one adviser linked with NATO intelligence.

There he met his son Khamis and pregnant daughter Aisha. They kept their meeting short, as rebels encircled the headquarters. While machine-gunners laid down covering fire, Gaddafi and Aisha jumped into two Toyota Land Cruisers and sped south in a 30-car convoy, the adviser said.

Gaddafi's convoy made for Bani Walid, 140km away and home to the once pro-regime Warfalla tribe.
"The family's plan was simple," an adviser said. "Khamis would stay to defend the retreat while the other sons and Aisha fled south. By entering Warfalla land the Gaddafis wanted to start a tribal war."

The rebels believed Gaddafi wanted to suck their men into Bani Walid, triggering clashes in the town that would unite the powerful Warfalla clan against the rebel army.

The plan would fail: the rebels remained patient, preferring to negotiate a truce with the Warfalla tribe.

The rebel army first attempted to pursue the Gaddafis. Scouts on the road ahead tipped off fighters stationed on the outskirts of Tarhuna, halfway to Bani Walid, about the approach of a large convoy of ammunition trucks, anti-aircraft guns and pick-up trucks led by Khamis Gaddafi.

As the convoy approached, the rebels hiding by the road opened fire with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, according to Colonel Kalid Nahji, the commander of rebel forces in Tarhuna.
Several armoured Toyotas were engulfed in flames, killing 13 people. More than a dozen others were captured, Nahji said. Testimony from the prisoners suggests Khamis was killed in the firefight.

"We're not sure if we got Khamis, but they buried someone senior in secret that evening in Bani Walid," said Abdullah Kenshil, who heads the political wing of the Bani Walid brigade.

"They buried the body quickly and only security attended. We believe it was either Khamis or the intelligence chief's son."

By nightfall last Tuesday Gaddafi had entered Bani Walid, according to Kenshil, who said his information came from rebel spies in the city.

Meanwhile, Saif Gaddafi made calls to an intermediary. This man was in touch with several US lawyers representing him in Tripoli, according to one lawyer.

"Saif wants to negotiate his surrender," the lawyer said. "He doesn't want to be tried in Libya. He wants to be handed over to the International Criminal Court."

Telephone calls from Saadi Gaddafi, who was also believed to be hiding in Bani Walid at the time, were then made to Harati, the deputy head of Tripoli's military council, pleading for leniency.

"He was very scared," said Harati. "He wanted Saudi Arabia and the UN to oversee the terms of his surrender."

When news of the negotiations broke in the media, a team from Saudi Arabia cancelled a planned trip to Tripoli on Wednesday.

That day rebel spies inside Bani Walid spotted Gaddafi making the telephone call from a landline at the airport, according to Kenshil.

Rebels believe the call was made to a television station in Syria, which broadcast the ousted dictator's warning to the Libyan people that he would never surrender.

Two days later Gaddafi left Bani Walid and headed south for Sabha in a convoy of six armoured Land Cruisers, according to rebel spies.

Meanwhile, Saif was spotted strolling through the centre of the town with bodyguards as he tried to rally residents, Kenshil said.

The following day the head of the Warfalla told the remaining members of Gaddafi's family his tribe could no longer guarantee their safety and Libyan troops began to withdraw from the town and the surrounding villages.

The Sunday Tmes

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