x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Libyan towns still 'not fully liberated' a year later

Qaddafi strongholds hold out a year after the dictator's death.

TRIPOLI // The last spokesman for the deposed Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi, was arrested yesterday exactly a year after the dictator's death.

Mussa Ibrahim was arrested south-west of the capital, in Tarhuna, the prime minister's office said.

"[He] is being taken to Tripoli where he will be handed over to the pertinent authorities to begin questioning," the office said.

Rumours of Mr Ibrahim's arrest and that of other personalities of the former regime said to be fleeing from the besieged town of Bani Walid had swirled since the morning.

The Libyan leader, Mohammed Magarief, has singled out the town of Bani Walid, about 160 kilometres south of Tripoli, as one of the areas of the country that has not been fully "liberated" since the capture and death of Qaddafi.

Libya was declared liberated a few days after his death on October 20 last year and while its new rulers have led the nation to elections, they have struggled to impose their authority on a country awash with weapons.

Speaking on Libyan television late on Friday, the General National Congress (GNC) leader said Bani Walid, a former Qaddafi stronghold, has witnessed deadly clashes in the last few days as the army struggles to impose order. "The campaign to liberate the country has not been fully completed," Mr Magarief said.

He cited "delays" in the formation of the army and police and the failure to disarm and integrate former rebels.

"This lack of care has led to the spread of chaos that has lured the old regime to infiltrate the country's institutions inside and to conspire with the regime loyalists on the outside," Mr Magarief said.

"The chaos has lured others to kidnappings, stealing and to create non-legitimate prisons ...

"Bani Walid ... has become a safe haven for a large number of those who are outside of the law."

Militias aligned with the defence ministry have shelled the hilltop town of 70,000 for several days. A spokesman for Bani Walid fighters, Col Salem Al Waer, said that fighting had started again yesterday morning. Many of those in the militias were from the rival town of Misurata, which was enraged by the death of rebel fighter Omran Shaban after two months in detention in Bani Walid.

Shaban, from Misurata, was the man who found Qaddafi hiding in a drain pipe in Sirte on October 20.

The GNC ordered the defence and interior ministries to find those responsible for abducting Shaban and suspected of torturing him to death. It gave Bani Walid a deadline to hand them over.

The army chief of staff said on Thursday that the army was heading to the town to try to restore order. "This is not targeting a region, a tribe, or unarmed civilians but outlawed men," Mr Magarief said.

Tensions between Misurata and Bani Walid underscore the challenge that Libya's new rulers face in reconciling groups with long-running grievances.

While Misurata spent weeks under siege by Qaddafi forces in last year's war, Bani Walid was one of the towns that remained loyal to Qaddafi longest. It remains isolated from the rest of Libya and former rebels say that it still harbours pockets of support for the old government.

* Reuters with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse