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Libyan rebels gird for attack on loyalist town

Talks collapse over surrender of stronghold

Rebel fighters marshaled yesterday near the outskirts of Bani Walid, one of Moammar Khadafy’s remaining strongholds. Rebel fighters marshaled yesterday near the outskirts of Bani Walid, one of Moammar Khadafy’s remaining strongholds. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)
By Hadeel al-Shalchi and Maggie Michael
Associated Press / September 5, 2011

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TARHOUNA, Libya - Negotiations over the surrender of one of Moammar Khadafy’s remaining strongholds have collapsed, and Libyan rebels were waiting for the green light to launch their final attack on the besieged town of Bani Walid, a spokesman said.

Rebel negotiator Abdullah Kanshil said the talks had broken down after Moussa Ibrahim, Khadafy’s chief spokesman and a top aide, had insisted the rebels put down their weapons before entering the town, some 90 miles southeast of Tripoli.

Rebel forces control most of the oil-rich North African nation and are already setting up a new government, but Khadafy and his staunchest allies remain on the run and enjoy support in several central and southern areas, including Bani Walid and the fugitive leader’s hometown of Surt.

The rebels have said the hardcore loyalists are a small minority inside the town but are heavily armed and stoking fear to keep other residents from surrendering.

“We feel sorry for the people of Bani Walid,’’ said Kanshil, himself a native of the town, speaking to reporters at a rebel checkpoint about 40 miles to the north. “We hope for the best for our town.’’

The rebels have extended to Saturday a deadline for the surrender of Khadafy’s hometown of Surt and other loyalist areas, but some have warned they could attack Bani Walid sooner because many of the most prominent former regime officials were believed to be inside.

There has been speculation that Khadafy himself along with his son Seif al-Islam had been there at some point, and the apparent presence of Ibrahim indicates that the town was a haven for high-level Khadafy aides.

“This battle has already been decided,’’ said Ahmed Bani, the rebels’ military spokesman based in Benghazi. “It is only a matter of hours.’’

He said there had been clashes around the town for the last four days, and rebel forces had come under fire from rockets and machine guns.

Thousands of rebel fighters have converged on Bani Walid in recent days from multiple directions.

The rebels say Khadafy does have some genuine supporters in Bani Walid, mainly people linked to the dictator through an elaborate patronage system that helped keep him in power for nearly 42 years.

Khadafy supporters are “claiming that [rebel] fighters will come and rape their women,’’ said Mubarak al-Saleh, the representative from Bani Walid to the rebels’ transitional council. “We are trying to assure people that the fighters are true Muslims who will not harm anybody except those whose hands are stained with blood.’’

Rebels arriving from Misurata, a western port that played a central role in the war, reported late Saturday they faced no resistance when they took two military camps on the outskirts of Bani Walid.

“Negotiations are over, and we are waiting for orders’’ to attack, said Mohammed al-Fassi, a rebel commander. “We wanted to do this without bloodshed, but they took advantage of our timeline to protect themselves.’’

Fassi said more Khadafy loyalists have moved into Bani Walid from the south outlined by a line of high hills, but did not know how many.

NATO, meanwhile, reported bombing a military barracks, a police camp, and other targets near the southern stronghold of Surt overnight, as well as targets near Hun, a possible staging ground in the desert halfway between Surt and Sabha. It also reported bombing an ammunition storage facility near Bani Walid.

NATO has been bombing Khadafy’s forces since March under a United Nations mandate to protect Libyan civilians. But that mandate expires on Sept. 27, and the rebels may be anxious to end the fight before it runs out - because it may be politically difficult to get it renewed.

While it is now held by loyalists, Bani Walid has a history of opposition to Khadafy. Western diplomats in Libya and opposition leaders abroad reported in 1993 that the air force had put down an uprising by army units in Misurata and Bani Walid. They said many officers were executed and arrested.

The rebel military spokesman said residents have told the rebels that Seif al-Islam, Khadafy’s son, had fled to Bani Walid soon after Tripoli fell, but left recently for fear townspeople would hand him over.

Many have speculated that Khadafy is hiding somewhere around Surt, Bani Walid, or the loyalist town of Sabha, deep in the Libyan desert. He and Seif al-Islam have tried to rally supporters in defiant audio recordings broadcast on the Syrian-based Al Rai television station but no concrete information about their whereabouts has emerged.

Outside Surt, Mustafa al-Rubaie, a rebel commander who was part of the talks with Surt tribal leaders, said rebels have been stationed about 60 miles outside of Surt, but have occasionally clashed with Khadafy supporters over the past days.

The rebels want the tribal chiefs to hand over “officers and soldiers who committed crimes and raped women,’’ he said.

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