Libya’s rebels surrounded the Gaddafi-held town of Bani Walid Monday and appeared prepared to attack as talks over that city’s peaceful handover had collapsed the previous night.
Thousands of rebels converged on Bani Walid, a desert town about 90 miles southeast of Tripoli and one of the last strongholds of Muammar al-Gaddafi who has been on the run since losing his capital last month, Associated Press reported.
Negotiations for Bani Walid’s peaceful handover failed reportedly due to pro-Gaddafi forces’ demand that rebels enter the town unarmed, according to BBC. Rebels also say the town’s tribal elders never took the negotiations seriously as they continued to fire even when the talks were being held.
It is believed that many prominent former regime officials are inside Bani Walid, one of four towns that remain loyal to Gaddafi apart from Jufra, Sabha and Gaddafi’s hometown Sirte. However, rebels are still waiting for a deal to prevent civilian casualties, as residents are unable to move and can get killed or be used as human shields by pro-Gaddafi forces.
Chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Abdel Jalil, told BBC that the pro-Gaddafi bastions were being given humanitarian aid and time to surrender “to avoid further bloodshed.” NTC comprises anti-Gaddafi forces of the civil war and is setting up a new government.
“We won’t go inside Bani Walid unless the Warfala tribe [Bani Walid’s main tribe] invites us,” Associated Press quoted NTC commander Ismail al-Gitani as saying. “The Warfala have to lead us into Bani Walid. Hopefully no one will be shot. We don’t want to use our weapons. But if the Gaddafi loyalists shoot at us, of course we will return fire.”
The battle for Bani Walid is expected to be one of the most challenging for rebels as they may not find the kind of support they got from locals elsewhere. However, there were unconfirmed reports of the deadline for Bani Walid’s leaders to surrender the city or face attack being extended to Sept. 10.
“Our families are inside there, we don’t [want] war,” Wall Street Journal quoted Sami Mohammed, a 36-year-old local fighter, as saying. “But we’re losing hope. Those people with Libyan blood on their hands are preventing any deal [from] being reached.”
Rebels believe that while the hardcore loyalists are a small minority inside the town, they are heavily armed and stoking fear to keep other residents from surrendering, Associated Press said. Rebels say the town has some genuine Gaddafi supporters, “mainly people linked to the dictator through an elaborate patronage system that helped keep him in power for nearly 42 years.”
On the other hand, Gaddafi supporters claim that rebels will rape their women, Mubarak al-Saleh, a rebel leader, was quoted as saying.
Meanwhile, NATO reportedly bombed several targets near Sirte and other areas overnight. NATO is authorized by a U.N. resolution to protect civilians in Libya since March.
The armed conflict between the Gaddafi-led government and anti-Gaddafi forces began in mid-February after the government used violence to curb peaceful protests.