Thursday, January 26, 2012

Back to Beni Walid

Gaddafi loyalists seize Libyan city

Associated Press

Libya, January 26, 2012

Muammar Gaddafi loyalists have seized control of a Libyan mountain city in the most serious challenge to the central government since the strongman's fall.

It underlines the increasing weakness of Libya's Western-backed rulers as they try to unify the country under their authority.

The taking of Bani Walid, one of the last Gaddafi strongholds captured by the new leadership late last year, was the first such organised operation by armed remnants of Gaddafi's regime.

A simultaneous outbreak of shootings in the capital and Libya's second largest city Benghazi raised authorities' concerned that other networks of loyalists were active elsewhere.

The security woes add to the difficulties of the ruling National Transitional Council, which is struggling to establish its authority and show Libyans progress in stability and good government. Bani Walid's fall comes after violent protests in Benghazi, where Libyans angry over lack of reform stormed the NTC headquarters and trashed offices.

In Bani Walid, hundreds of well-equipped and highly trained remnants of Gaddafi's forces battled for eight hours on Monday with the local pro-NTC revolutionary brigade, known as the May 28 Brigade, said Mubarak al-Fatmani, the head of Bani Walid local council.

The brigade was driven out and Gaddafi loyalists then raised their old green flag over buildings in the western city.

Four revolutionary fighters were killed and 25 others were wounded in the fighting, al-Fatmani said.

There were no immediate signs that the uprising was part of some direct attempt to restore the family of Gaddafi, who was swept out of power in August and then killed in the nearby city of Sirte in October.

His sons, daughter and wife have been killed, arrested or have fled to neighbouring countries.

Instead, the fighting seemed to reflect a rejection of NTC control by a city that never deeply accepted its rule, highlighting the still unresolved tensions between those who benefited under Gaddafi's regime and those now in power.

Those tensions are tightly wound up with tribal and regional rivalries around the country.
The May 28 Brigade had kept only a superficial control over the city, the head of Bani Walid's military council, Abdullah al-Khazmi, acknowledged.

"The only link between Bani Walid and the revolution was May 28, now it is gone and 99 per cent of Bani Walid people are Gaddafi loyalists," he said.

He spoke to The Associated Press at a position on the eastern outskirts of Bani Walid, where hundreds of pro-NTC reinforcements from Benghazi were deployed with convoys of cars mounted with machine guns, though there was no immediate move to retake the city.

A powerful sense of deja vu grips the men of Libya's national guard as they mass for battle in the freezing desert outside Bani Walid, the new frontline of a war most had thought was long over.

Last October many of these same fighters battled their way into this desert town, one of the last pro-Gaddafi redoubts to hold out against the rebels.

Now they are back again after fighting this week killed four soldiers and forced the closure of a small government garrison. Several dozen former Gaddafi administration officials arrested for war crimes by the garrison in recent weeks were sprung from jail during the uprising.

The town, home to the powerful Warfalla tribe, has become a no-go area for government units and the militias, drawn from units across Libya, are ready to launch a new offensive unless local leaders allow them back in - and round-up war crimes suspects.
"There are three hundred pro-Gaddafi guys in that town," says Suleiman Hatir, a fighter from the eastern town of Tobruk. "They have committed crimes and they are living in Beni Walid."

Fighters here agree with the assessment UN special envoy Ian Martin delivered to the security council in New York on Wednesday in which he said the fighting is not part of a pro-Gaddafi uprising.

The real problem, Martin said, lay in the weakness of the ruling National Transitional Council, which has faced protests against its perceived lack of transparency, most notably concerning the destination of the country's swelling oil revenues.

The frontline is the same as it was last October, a small desert settlement named al-Estada, no more than a collection of sand coloured huts, a mosque and a shop, 30 miles north of Beni Walid.

Pro-Gaddafi graffiti has long been whitewashed out, replaced by revolutionary slogans rendered in red, black and green paint.

The weather, however, is very different. The fighters now look fat in winter combat jackets of as many different camouflage patterns as the origins of their units, hunched against a freezing wind that whips off the desert scrub.

Alerts come and go. A convoy of 14 armed jeeps rumbles past towards Beni Walid and a white helicopter lands amid clouds of dust on the road, awaiting the wounded. But with no sounds of battle audible, the helicopter flies away again and the fighters resume their chilly vigil.

Hadir explains that the fighters hail from units from Tripoli, Misrata, Benghazi, Tobruk and Beni Walid itself, but that they have no dealings with the official national army, an anaemic force staffed by former Gaddafi-era officials. The national army, perhaps wisely, is keeping well out of the way, manning a few roadblocks to the north.

The fighters also say they are at one with demonstrators in the cities demanding more accountability and democracy from the government. "We are with the protesters," Hatir says. "The militias are united."

Across the street from the shop a group of migrant workers from Nigeria sit against a wall, having been arrested a few hours before on suspicion of being mercenaries. "We were not in the army," says 21-year-old Sunday Sienda, wearing a grubby Barcelona football shirt. "I am telling you, I have been in Libya two years. I work. I was trying to get to Tripoli."

Their guards suspect otherwise, but there is no sign of mistreatment. Finally, after a discussion among commanders, it is decided that the captives are innocent. An hour later two white Red Cross jeeps arrive to collect them.

Civilians leaving Beni Walid insist they are not pro-Gaddafi and accuse the former rebels of theft and vandalism when the town fell in the autumn. Bani Walid's elders are more circumspect, saying they are in no position to confront the pro-Gaddafi elements who have made the town their home.

Abdul Aziz Guma, a fighter from Tripoli who wears blue leggings under his combat trousers to keep warm, says the war criminals, not the local population, are the target. "We do not want to harm innocent people."

But Osama el-Hadi, a fighter in a grey Wranger hoodie, is more gloomy. "I am from Beni Walid and I can tell you the reality, which is that 90% of the inhabitants of Beni Walid are pro-Gaddafi. It's just their mentality, it is the way they are."

In some ways neither the political orientation of Beni Walid matters, and nor do edicts from central government. What matters is whether the elders hand over their war crimes suspects. Failure to do so is likely to see a full-blown assault, meaning further destruction for both the town and the crumbling reputation of Libya's new government.

By Oliver Holmes and Taha Zargoun

SADADA, Libya | Fri Jan 27, 2012 6:37pm EST

(Reuters) - A militia commander whose troops were driven out of the Libyan tribal stronghold of Bani Walid this week said on Friday that his forces were massing to recapture the town but were holding back at the government's request.

"It is our right to reenter Bani Walid and nobody can prevent us," Imbarak al-Futmani said in an interview with Reuters at his desert camp near Sadada, 30 miles east of Bani Walid.

Futmani's troops were pushed out by angry townsmen who he accuses of being the remnants of loyalists of Muammar Gaddafi, the former dictator who was overthrown then captured and killed in October.

Eight hundred of his men were now massed along the eastern flank of the town awaiting his orders to enter by force, said the elderly warrior, who was dressed in an ornate black and gold waistcoast, a skullcap and a white blanket over his shoulder.

Bani Walid, 90 miles south of Tripoli, was one of the last towns to surrender to the anti-Gaddafi rebellion last year.

Hundreds of fighters loyal to the interim government have surrounded the isolated town after hearing word that a pro-Gaddafi uprising had broken out.

Futmani said he faced a couple of hundred "criminals" nostalgic for Gaddafi's time in power, rather than large battalions of organized loyalists.

"We have all the revolutionary fighters with us and we can take Bani Walid in a matter of hours."

"If they don't hand themselves in, they will face what they cannot imagine," he added, his eyes hidden by thick-rimmed, amber Ray-Ban sunglasses.


On Monday, armed residents surrounded Futmani's brigade, who named themselves the "28th of May," after the date last year when Gaddafi loyalists executed a number of pro-democracy protesters in Bani Walid.

After a battle in which Futmani lost six fighters, his men fled the barracks in the dark of the night.

"Once the Gaddafis broke through the gate and entered the barracks, all they cared about was stealing our tanks. We just walked right out," said one of Futmani's men.

Echoing complaints by residents that the 28th of May Brigade had been harassing people and abusing prisoners, the town elders said they were dismissing the government-backed local council on which Futmani sits and appointing their own local government.

They said they were not Gaddafi supporters but just tired of the militia pushing its weight around their town.

Futmani says the elders profited from Gaddafi and were trying to reclaim their town from its rightful rulers, the western-backed National Transitional Council (NTC) government.


With hundreds of fighters waiting at the gates of Bani Walid, drinking tea and oiling their weapons in the cold desert, why have they have not pushed forward?

Sitting in his base, a former Gaddafi holiday mansion on the top of a rocky hill, Futmani said the prime minister had asked him to hold off to allow civilians to leave the town and, hopefully, for the assailants to surrender.

"The prime minister called me and asked me not to move and I accepted," he said.

"(Prime minister Abdel Rahim) El Keib promised that the government would use force to maintain security, if necessary."

Troops from the nascent National Army, composed of revolutionary fighters who have signed up to the government force, had joined the militias around Bani Walid.

The NTC has been unable to fully establish control over armed revolutionary groups in Libya and has only incorporated a few brigades into a national security force. All of the militias claim loyalty to the government but most are still unwilling to disarm. Instead, they adopt a wait-and-see approach to who comes to power, and if they like them.

Futmani's men cruise around the base in dirty pick-up trucks with machineguns mounted on the back.

He is skeptical of any peaceful solution and saw more violence ahead.

"These pro-Gaddafis, they see us a rats, like Gaddafi did," he said. "They are murderers and criminals, they will never integrate into the new Libya because they know they will face justice now."

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