Libyan forces seize most of Bani Walid
TRIPOLI, Libya—Libyan revolutionary forces have captured almost all of Bani Walid, one of Moammar Gadhafi's last remaining strongholds, but still face pockets of resistance as they try to end a weeks-long standoff, officials said Monday.
Fierce resistance in Bani Walid and Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte has prevented Libya's new leaders from declaring full victory and setting a timeline for elections. It has been more than two months since the former rebels gained control of the rest of the oil-rich North African nation.
In a step toward normalcy, the transitional leadership council confirmed it has signed an agreement with NATO that partially lifts the no-fly zone imposed in March over the country, allowing resumption of some flights without seeking NATO approval. The embargo was imposed as part of the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized airstrikes to protect civilians from Gadhafi's regime.
Anwar Elfeitori, the minister of transportation and communications, said the agreement signed Thursday in Malta will make it easier to transport wounded fighters from the front lines for treatment.
"The partial lifting of the air embargo will help with the transportation of the casualties, which is the No. 1 priority at this time, as well as facilitate the movement of people between Libya and the rest of the world," Elfeitori told The Associated Press in an interview.
He said the agreement only applies to specific routes and altitudes for humanitarian flights but is designed so it can be amended to include other areas as security conditions allow.
NATO officials have expressed surprise at the persistence of Gadhafi's supporters. Libyans believe the heavy resistance signals some of Gadhafi's sons and other high-level regime figures are hiding in the areas.
Fighters in Bani Walid, which has proven particularly hard to capture because of its difficult terrain, said they have entered the city center for the first time but still were fighting Gadhafi supporters in surrounding villages
"Now we are controlling more than 90 percent of Bani Walid," military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani told reporters in Tripoli. He said revolutionary forces had suffered heavy casualties but declined to give a number.
Residents and fighters said that Gadhafi forces retreated in the face of the advance over the past two days.
Moammar al-Warfali, a doctor in Bani Walid, said fighters loyal to the new transitional government seized the center, a key hospital and several other high buildings used by Gadhafi's snipers to prevent any advance by the revolutionary fighters.
He also said Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam had been seen in the city as recently as last week.
NATO has pledged to continue airstrikes for as long as necessary, saying pro-Gadhafi forces continue to pose a threat to civilians in Libya.
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague also pledged more humanitarian and financial support Monday during a visit to Tripoli. He also said the new British ambassador and presided over a flag-raising ceremony at Britain's charred embassy building, which had been attacked by Gadhafi supporters angry over NATO airstrikes.
"This is further recognition of the great progress the National Transitional Council has made in stabilizing Libya and re-establishing the country's role as a full member of the international community," Hague told reporters, referring to the new leadership body.
He also stressed the importance of finding Gadhafi and other regime figures wanted for crimes against humanity.
Gadhafi remains on the run and fighting with his supporters continues on two fronts more than two months after Tripoli fell to revolutionary forces. Some believe he might try to flee to another African country since he cultivated good relations with many of them during his more than four decades in power.
The International Criminal Court has accused the ousted leader along with his son Seif al-Islam and his former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senoussi of unleashing a campaign of murder and torture in an attempt to crush the uprising that broke out in mid-February.
Hague said it was crucial to bring the men to justice and promised Britain would continue to help in the search, although he didn't elaborate on what was being done.
"We've already been very active reminding other countries in Africa of their responsibility, their responsibility to apprehend and to hand over to the Libyans or to the International Criminal Court any of these people who go onto their territory," he said. "Of course we don't know where all of them are but we will continue to assist in looking for them."
Britain has taken a lead role in the NATO air campaign that has been critical to the revolutionary successes.
Associated Press writer Rami al-Shaheibi contributed to this report.