x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Libya fighters seize ex-Qaddafi bastion

Libyan pro-government forces have seized control of Bani Walid, one of the last bastions of Muammar Qaddafis regime.

Libyan pro-government supporters celebrate in the streets of Bani Walid after seizing control of the city.  Hundreds of fighters from Misrata converged on the centre of town, firing in the air and hoisting the Libyan flag to celebrate.
Libyan pro-government supporters celebrate in the streets of Bani Walid after seizing control of the city. Hundreds of fighters from Misrata converged on the centre of town, firing in the air and hoisting the Libyan flag to celebrate.

BANI WALID, Libya // Libyan pro-government forces seized control of Bani Walid yesterday, one of the last bastions of Muammar Qaddafis regime.

Hundreds of fighters, mostly former rebels from the rival town of Misurata, converged on the centre of Bani Walid, firing in the air to celebrate and hoisting the Libyan flag on abandoned public buildings.

Some of the fighters blasted the walls and windows with anti-tank rockets and Kalashnikov rifles.

Several rebel chiefs, whose fighters patrolled in vehicles mounted with heavy weapons, said the town was "almost liberated", with only a few pockets of resistance left in its southern sector.

"On this day - Oct. 24 - Bani Walid is free. There are no more Qaddafi militias inside," Fathi Shahoud, a commander of the Libya Shield grouping of militias aligned with the defence ministry, said. "Now we control the city and we will stay to ensure safety."

The town itself was deserted, with residents and foreign workers having fled since on Sunday.

Fierce clashes in Bani Walid, which was accused of harbouring Qaddafi loyalists, cast a pall over celebrations for the first anniversary this week of the overthrow of his regime in a bloody conflict.

The fighting fanned old tribal feuds and underscored the difficulties of achieving national reconciliation.

A scaled-up offensive against Bani Walid since last week came in response to the death of Omran Shaaban, 22, a former rebel from the city of Misurata who was credited with capturing Qaddafi.

Shaaban spent weeks held hostage in Bani Walid, where he was shot and allegedly tortured, before the authorities managed to broker his release.

He later died of injuries sustained during the ordeal, stoking tensions between his hometown Misurata and Bani Walid, long-time rivals which fought on opposite sides of the 2011 conflict, and galvanising the authorities to act.

The victorious fighters on Wednesday carried a massive portrait of Shaaban.

Clashes between pro-government forces and Bani Walid fighters over the past week killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds, in scenes evocative of the civil war that led to Qaddafi overthrow and death.

Tribal leaders and commanders in Bani Walid, 185 kilometres south-east of Tripoli, had accused "lawless Misurata militias" of seeking to annihilate their historic rival.

* With additional reporting by Reuters