Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Bani Walid Finally Falls
At Bani Walid party, Libya fighters look to future
By Barry Malone
Oct 18 (Reuters) - "I used to drive a 1990 Mazda," the young Libyan revolutionary says through child-like giggles, hurtling into the heart of battle at the wheel of a new 4-by-4 looted from slain soldiers of Muammar Gaddafi. "Look at me now."
But there was to be no more fighting for Ali that day. Bani Walid, one of only two towns in Libya that had still been resisting the men who toppled one of the world's most recognisable leaders, had fallen.
The 23-year-old could not believe his eyes as he pulled the car into the town's central square.
Hundreds of fighters, most of them young men like himself, ran around streets they had tried to reach for six weeks, shouting, singing, and calling out, "God is greatest".
They unleashed thousands of celebratory bullets into the air with machine-guns and a few guffawing fighters even recklessly sent rocket-propelled grenades whizzing off into the distance.
Several men spun anti-aircraft guns around and around, filling the skies with smoke and flames and ammo as another fighter nearby sent a car skidding in circles until, finally, he flipped it over on its roof.
"Hey, Gaddafi! Look at this! Screw you, Gaddafi!" a young fighter screamed as he ran past.
Ali stood with his hands on his head in amazement. "Crazy boys," he shouted, laughing.
Then, through the wild scene, a man dressed in medical scrubs appeared.
He had come from one of the nearby field hospitals where, for weeks, they have been treating men hit by sniper fire, fighters with limbs blown off, friends unrecognisable after mortar attacks -- many of whom did not make it.
The man wandered for a while, wide-eyed with shock and seeming unsure of which direction to go, before he saw a fighter that he knew. He stumbled into his arms and both of them started to weep.
Ali went quiet and then looked away.
The fighters from the various regional rebel brigades who are now loyal to Libya's interim government, the National Transitional Council, have gone through a complex wave of emotions since taking up arms against Gaddafi just eight months ago and changing their country forever.
With the final pro-Gaddafi holdout towns now falling, they are wondering if it has also changed their futures.
WORRYING AND WAITING
Ali, and others like him, will often talk openly about their experiences, the family and friends they've lost and the men -- in some cases the many men -- who they have killed.
Sometimes they laugh nervously as they tell the often horrible tales, sometimes they laugh genuinely and, at other times, they can darken suddenly.
"I worry about some of us. That we might get sick," Ali said, tapping his head. "Psychologically."
He sometimes erupted into laughter as he described battlefield incidents in which he had killed Gaddafi soldiers and snipers with RPG and anti-aircraft fire. But, "I don't like the killing," he said.
The spontaneous joy that deafened Bani Walid as anti-Gaddafi fighters surged into its square on Monday and Tuesday, was in part provoked by a hope that things will now be better for those young men.
But there is some bitterness as well as hope in their ranks, and some fighters have looted in pro-Gaddafi towns far from their own homes, though others have resisted.
"We never had anything but we were never afraid of Gaddafi. This generation had no fear," 26-year-old Abdul shouted to Reuters over the noise of the celebrations.
"Maybe our fathers did, maybe my grandfather. But we were always going to throw him out. Always. Because we wanted more."
The interim leaders have made promises to the men whose fighting put them in power, with plans to recruit some into the military, some into the police and to send others to colleges.
But, with the messy business of forming a government, some are already frustrated and worried that the older men at the top tables may soon forget about them.
As the inevitable jostling for power moves into full post-revolution flight, the fighters wait.
"It could take a long time to build a new country," Ali said. "Maybe that is what our generation will do, for our children. For me, I don't know. I might go to Canada. And come back when Libya is like that."
Mustafa, a 26-year-old fighter, who had jumped from the back of a pick-up truck where he had been firing anti-aircraft volleys into the air, approached with a big grin.
"How is my English?" he asked. "Gaddafi wouldn't let most Libyans learn. He didn't want us to be educated or go out into the outside world. Now young Libyans want all of those things."
Neighbouring Tunisia's standard of living is often mentioned with envy and a lot of the young men say they know well that, in a country with oil riches and just 6 million people, there is more to go around.
"But it's not that. It's more. Nobody wanted to fight but, in my town, it was for freedom," Ali said, adjusting the touch-screen controls in the Gaddafi military car now owned by his brigade as he drove out of Bani Walid later.
"In the mountains, there were 20 of us fighting and only two of us made it home. This car? I would burn it and this whole world and everything I have in it to bring them back." (Editing by Jon Boyle)
Gaddafi stronghold Bani Walid falls
NTC troops raise flags of Libya's new government after six-week siege, leaving only parts of Sirte defended by loyalists
NTC commander claims troops have raised the flag of Libya's new government after a six-week siege.
One of the two last strongholds of Gaddafi loyalists, the town of Bani Walid, has finally been contained, Libya's interim government has claimed, leaving only parts of the ousted tyrant's birthplace out of rebel reach.
The advance by National Transitional Council (NTC) forces inside Bani Walid, about 90 miles (150km) south-east of Tripoli, came after a six-week standoff that included frequent clashes with former members of Gaddafi's security forces backed by a fiercely loyal local population.
A breakthrough in the siege of the town came over the weekend when senior members of the resident Warfilla tribe, which accounts for roughly 15% of Libya's total population, said they would recognise the NTC as long as its forces did not invade.
Nestled in a rocky valley, the town had proved impregnable since the fall of Tripoli, with senior members of the Gaddafi clan known to have sought refuge there before fleeing south to Algeria and Niger.
Attempts to take the town previously had led to heavy losses and frequent back-pedalling by anti-Gaddafi fighters who were outgunned by the 2,000 dug-in loyalists that are thought to have remained.
They now claim to have raised their flags over key institutions and to have silenced a radio station that had continued to broadcast Gaddafi propaganda claiming the dictator was still ruling from his Tripoli compound.
Gaddafi himself is thought to have spent several days in Bani Walid in late August before moving into southern Libya. Libya's nascent leadership claims to have a rough idea of where Gaddafi and his entourage are hiding, but is not known to have launched large-scale operations to find him.
He is widely believed to have separated from two of his sons, Saif al-Islam and Mutassim, who were hiding at military bases in Bani Walid at least until early September.
They were joined by other regime loyalists, including the spokesman Moussa Ibrahim, who acknowledged his location during calls to news organisations. A third Gaddafi scion, Saadi, left the city for Niger in the second week of September.
Despite an intensive month-long military operation, Sirte to the north is still not in full NTC control, with a diehard group of about 15,000 residents and fighters holding out in several pockets of the city.
The seaside city is home to Gaddafi's ancestral clan, whose members have rejected overtures from the new government to turn on their patron and mounted staunch resistance to rebel inroads.
Gaddafi last week urged his supporters to take to the streets after Friday prayers, a request that a small number – perhaps several hundred – responded to in central Tripoli, where a two-hour gun battle in the Abu Salim district followed an attempt to raise the green flag of the fallen regime.
The fighting was the first sign of the fightback that Gaddafi has regularly urged through audio messages sent to supporters, including a Syrian television network.
Meanwhile, the foreign secretary, William Hague, has re-opened the pillaged British embassy in Tripoli and pledged more aid to the NTC, including a shipment of cash that had been frozen in the United Kingdom during the sanctions imposed on Gaddafi's government.
As Hague was speaking, bulldozers knocked down some walls around the Bab al-Azizia compound, which had been the heart of Gaddafi's power for more than four decades.
The compound had been a symbol of tyranny for many Tripoli residents. However, the gates were knocked down during the fighting for the capital and touring it in family sedans has now become the city's best day out.