As Libya on Saturday marks one year since the capture and death of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, a battle is brewing in and near the city of Bani Walid, where the Libyan army and militia from the city of Misrata are preparing to attack one of the last strongholds of Gadhafi supporters.
A 48-hour cease-fire went to effect Friday to allow civilians to leave the city, which lies about 100 miles southeast of Tripoli, the capital, after an assault on Thursday by the government and the militia forced hundreds to flee, left at least 20 people dead and dozens more wounded.
Thursday’s assault came after Bani Walid leaders failed to hand over men wanted by the Libyan government for the abduction, torture and death of Omran Shabaan, a militia member from Misrata who helped to capture a wounded Gadhafi from a drainpipe. Shabaan died in a Paris hospital last month shortly after his release from several months in captivity.
The exact number of fatalities and injuries in fighting before the cease-fire went to effect was hard to determine, with both sides giving disputed figures and facts. The cease-fire itself follows divisions in the government over what action will be taken – a sign of the continuing chaos that has ruled in Libya since Gadhafi’s government was toppled.
“There has been no news on how many people were killed today, but the humanitarian situation in the city remains problematic,” Nasser Al Hawary from the Libyan Observatory for Human Rights, told McClatchy.
Pro-Gadhafi partisans in the Tripoli neighborhood of Abu Salim say they are trying to track events in Bani Walid by telephone.
“Two of my friends were killed on Thursday,” an Abu Salim resident, who asked that he be identified only as Mohammed because of security concerns, told McClatchy by phone. “The situation in the city is very bad. People are short of medicine, food and water. We spoke to members of our family there yesterday, but we have been unable to contact them today.”
Bani Walid was a center of pro-Gadhafi sentiment during last year’s rebellion and was the last major city to hold out after other Gadhafi enclaves had fallen, including Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown, where he died on Oct. 20, 2011.
The city was encircled several weeks ago and its leaders given a deadline of Oct. 5 by Libyan authorities to hand over the wanted men or face the use of force. This deadline was extended to Oct. 10 as tribal elders tried to resolve the matter peacefully.
But the enmity between Bani Walid and Misrata goes back decades, predating the anti-Gadhafi revolt, in which the two cities took opposing sides.
Those hard feelings have been on display throughout the standoff. Bani Walid officials at one point agreed to hand over the men on Tripoli’s wanted list but in return demanded that hundreds of people from Bani Walid held illegally in Misrata detention camps be released.
The Bani Walid officials also demanded that Misrata militiamen not be allowed to enter the city, a condition the Misrata militiamen found unacceptable. The Misratans then began firing Grad rockets into Bani Walid on Tuesday despite government orders to wait.
“The situation in Bani Walid could be resolved peacefully, but the Misrata militias don’t want to resolve this through negotiations. They prefer to fight,” Hawary told McClatchy.
There are fears that the fighting could spill over to other parts of Libya. Bani Walid is home to the Warfalli tribe, which is the largest tribe in Libya, numbering more than a million people scattered throughout the country.
It is too simplistic, however, to call all Warfallis pro-Gadhafi. Some Warfallis fought against Gadhafi forces, with the largest militia in Bani Walid named for an attempted coup against Gadhafi in 1993.