In Libya, one of final Gadhafi strongholds poised to fall

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 3, 2011 

BENGHAZI, Libya — One of the last strongholds of the ousted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, the town of Bani Walid, is on the verge of surrender to revolutionary forces, a top official said Saturday, as the new regime issued a second ultimatum to the remaining pockets of resistance.

Ahmed Hafiz Ghoga, a spokesman for the National Transitional Council, told McClatchy "we hope" that rebel forces will peacefully enter Bani Walid, a small town about 120 miles southeast of the capital, Tripoli, Sunday morning local time.

He said negotiations are continuing with leaders of two other holdout cities — Sirte, Gadhafi's birthplace on the Mediterranean Sea, and Sabha, a garrison town deep in the Sahara, where they believe Gadhafi is now in hiding, and it's possible they both will be handed over without a fight.

If Bani Walid surrenders, Libyan revolution forces may capture two additional prizes, Gadhafi's two sons, Saif al Islam, 49, and Saadi, 38, both of whom are believed to be hiding in the town, Ghoga said.

The interim government Saturday renewed an ultimatum to Gadhafi forces to give up control over the three towns within a week.

Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the chairman of the council, told reporters its fighters "are in a position of strength to enter any city." But he said, "Since we are keen to avoid bloodshed and further destruction, we have given an ultimatum of one week to Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha."

The first ultimatum, issued Tuesday, was to expire Saturday, but the council lifted it after receiving appeals from tribal elders in Sirte and the other towns, who said many civilians would die if the military tried to capture the towns by force.

Throughout the six-month uprising, the U.S. and other NATO countries, joined by Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, have provided the air power to back up the rebel ground troops, and this week was no exception.

NATO aircraft destroyed four Scud missile ground-to-ground launchers and an ammunition storage site in Sirte this past week, and on Friday they demolished three tanks in Sirte alone. In Bani Walid, they destroyed a vehicle storage facility, Col. Roland Lavoie, NATO military spokesman in Naples, told McClatchy.

Fighters under the command of the National Transitional Council, the revolutionaries' governing body, have laid broad sieges of both cities, cutting off most roads but leaving a wide desert no-man's land to avoid rocket fire from fighters still loyal to Gadhafi. There have been some skirmishes in the past few days, as well as negotiations.

Since council officials extended a deadline to attack Sirte on Saturday for another week, some families have negotiated the road between Sirte and Misrata. Revolutionary fighters manning a checkpoint at Sdada, 50 miles east of Misrata, said that most cars were being allowed through the checkpoint, but few had come.

Two Bani Walid residents who came to Misrata, a coastal town midway between Tripoli and Sirte, earlier in the week, said they thought the town would fall easily to the rebels, and that NATO attacks on Aug. 24 did serious damage to the pro-Gadhafi forces there.

"NATO hit the Gadhafi soldiers and destroyed many tanks," said Mohammed Abdullah, who left Misrata five months ago to escape heavy fighting here.

Abdullah described a city with no electricity or running water. He said that the issue of supporting Gadhafi had split tribal leaders there, and repeated the popular rumor that one of the ousted leader's sons, Saif al Islam, was present in the city.

"There has been fighting inside Bani Walid. The fight has split the tribe," Abdullah said. "Some people gave Saif three days to leave, but he did not."

Civilians and Gadhafi fighters have been leaving Bani Walid in the past week via desert roads that are patrolled by revolutionary and Gadhafi fighters but held by neither side. On Saturday, revolutionary fighters said NATO officials had informed them of a convoy of about 50 vehicles, believe to be pro-Gadhafi fighters, moving through the desert from Sirte to Bani Walid. Residents from both Sirte and Bani Walid said that Gadhafi's forces had largely moved to the outskirts of the cities, and weren't preventing citizens from leaving.

Abdullah said he believed that the residents of Bani Walid were prepared to join the revolution, but were afraid they were still outgunned.

"Some people in Bani Walid took the guns from the army bases after NATO bombed them," Abdullah said. "My cousin was one of them. They're waiting for the revolution."

At the last revolutionary checkpoint between Bani Walid and Misrata, fighters on Saturday said they'd pushed as close as 25 miles to Bani Walid, where they found five abandoned armored vehicles. The vehicles had been buried in the sand, presumably to hide them from NATO air assaults. The Gadhafi soldiers had left their uniforms behind, the fighters said, and one held up a green beret as proof.

At least one of the villages between Sirte and Sdada appears to have taken the revolutionaries' side.

"On Thursday, one of the sheikhs in Woska met with (revolutionary fighters) and they turned over weapons they had been given by the Gadhafi forces three months ago," said Yousif Fanas, one of the leaders of Katiba Habous, a group of revolutionary fighters based in Misrata. "They handed over 75 Kalashnikovs, 45 (rocket propelled grenades) and 20 nine-millimeter pistols."

Between 10 and 15 cars passed through the checkpoint at Sdada on Thursday, Fanas said. Fighters manning the checkpoints are generally looking for weapons, Fanas said, but added that two cars weren't allowed to pass and turned back to Sirte.

"If we know they're with the revolution, we let them through the checkpoint," Fanas said. "We can tell by the way they talk."

One of the men caught by Fanas's fighters was Abdel Mohammed Mosbah, who was shot by revolutionary forces near Al Mamiah, a small village between Sirte and Sdada last week. Mosbah told his story from his prison bed in Misrata.

"In June, the Gadhafi forces set up checkpoints in the center of town, and told everyone that one man from each family had to go to Woshka or to Brega to fight," Mosbah said. "I am a geography teacher."

Fanas said the families coming through the checkpoint spoke of a town ready to give up.

"There is no gas, no electricity, no water, no food," he said. "The people are getting tired."

"Everyone is just staying in their house," Mosbah said.

(Gutman reported from Benghazi. Enders, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Misrata.)

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