x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

NTC delays unveiling new Libyan government

Announcement of a new transitional government has been postponed indefinitely 'to finalise consultations', says National Transitional Council number two Mahmoud Jibril at a news conference in Benghazi.

Anti-Qaddafi fighters take cover as they come under fire at the entrance of the besieged desert town of Bani Walidyesterday. Zohra Bensemra / Reuters
Anti-Qaddafi fighters take cover as they come under fire at the entrance of the besieged desert town of Bani Walidyesterday. Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

BANI WALID // The unveiling of the new Libyan government yesterday has been put off "indefinitely".

The delay was revealed yesterday by Mahmoud Jibril, the number two official in the National Transitional Council (NTC).

"The announcement of a new transitional government has been postponed indefinitely to finalise consultations," Mr Jibril said at a news conference in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Earlier, Mr Jibril had said that last-minute haggling had delayed the announcement of the new cabinet line-up.

Also yesterday, NTC forces repelled an attack by Col Muammar Qaddafi troops but faced fierce resistance from a valley separating them from the loyalist stronghold of Bani Walid, fighters said.

Explosions resounded across the area and smoke rose on the horizon as the two sides exchanged fire with rockets and anti-aircraft missiles.

Fighters said they made the push without orders from commanders on Sunday after forces loyal to the fugitive leader shelled revolutionary lines at the northern gate of the sprawling town.

"We had no command to enter the city but they are rocketing us and throwing mortars at us so we had to push through," said Sherif Tajouri, a 41-year-old member of a brigade from the nearby town of Tajoura. Nato aircraft circled the area but former rebels say there was no sign of air strikes.

At one point, fighters in a pickup truck dumped the body of a dead loyalist wearing green fatigues on to a pile of mattresses away from the front line.

They chanted "God is great" and "here is one of the rats" and flashed a "V for victory" sign.

The two sides have clashed for days after former rebels made a push toward Bani Walid and Col Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte to try to break weeks of stalemate and crush the dug-in fighters loyal to the fugitive leader.

Families streamed out Sirte to escape the fighting.

Rebels searching vehicles found many assault rifles and pistols. Some people volunteered the weapons but others were confiscated.

While Sirte would be a major symbolic prize, Bani Walid has proven particularly difficult for revolutionary forces.

The loyalists hold the strategic high ground along the ridges overlooking the desert valley called Wadi Zeitoun, which divides the town between northern and southern sections.

The terrain has made the town a historical holdout - in the early 20th century, Italian forces occupying Libya struggled to take Bani Walid.

Qaddafi forces blasted fighters at the northern gate with mortar shells, while the NTC forces returned fire with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Meanwhile, reinforcements from Tajoura posed on a tank they said had been captured after the NTC forces swept into Tripoli on August 21.

Fathi Mselati, 31, from the Tajoura brigade, said more captured tanks were on their way to the front.

NTC forces also have faced fierce resistance in Sirte as they tried to push through crowded residential areas in the coastal city.

They claimed on Saturday to have progressed less than a mile into the city, along the main coastal motorway leading in from the west.

The forces were met by a rain of gunfire, rockets and mortars.

A field hospital set up outside Sirte at a gas station filled with wounded fighters, including some from a convoy hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Twenty-four anti-Qaddafi fighters were killed and 54 wounded in the day's battles, the military council from the nearby city of Misurata reported.

The two sides continued to exchange fire yesterday.

Abdul Aziz, a 35-year-old businessman, said he was fleeing with his wife and three young children after fighting broke out near his house on Saturday.

He said living conditions were extremely difficult in the city of 100,000 people.

"There hasn't been power in Sirte for a long time. Sometimes there is water, sometimes there isn't. There is food for now but no medicine," he said as NTC forces searched his car, which was loaded with clothes, onions and baby powder.

"It's very dangerous in Sirte. Yesterday they were fighting near my house," he added.

"My kids are very scared, that is why I want to get them out."

On a third front in Libya's southern desert, hundreds of NTC fighters were negotiating with villagers in the still pro-Qaddafi region to surrender peacefully. The fighters collected on a road near the Nahrouqa village on Sunday.

Col Bashir Awidat has said that they seek to secure the surrounding hinterlands before moving against Sabha, the main southern urban centre about 650 kilometres south of Tripoli.

In Tripoli, two Libyan air force pilots who aborted a Qaddafi-ordered bombing raid on a civilian protest before the leader was removed from power flew back to the capital on Sunday to a hero's welcome.

The men, who had been in Malta, were mobbed by well-wishers who chanted "God is great" on the tarmac.

The pilots looked dazed as they were rushed into waiting vehicles and driven away to an unknown location.

Their names were not released due to security concerns.

* Associated Press, with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse