Libya's defense minister visits rebel town after clashes
Published Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Libya's Defense Minister Osama al-Juwali is holding talks with townsmen in Bani Walid, a former stronghold of Muammar Gaddafi the government lost control of on Tuesday after local people staged an armed uprising.

"The minister came here today and we are speaking to him to find a solution to this problem," said Abdul Azziz al-Jmaili, a council member in Bani Walid, 150 kilometers from Tripoli.

"A peacekeeping force have come and set up checkpoints on the outskirts of the town," he said, adding the force consisted of armed brigades from nearby towns who are loyal to the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC).

Residents of the Libyan town of Bani Walid strongly dismissed accusations that they want to restore the late dictator's family to power after local men pushed forces loyal to the NTC out of town.

"Allegations of pro-Gaddafi elements in Bani Walid, this is not true," said Miftah Jubarra, who was among dozens of leading citizens gathered at a local mosque to form a municipal council after representatives from the capital fled.

"In the Libyan revolution, we have all become brothers," Jubarra added, "We will not be an obstacle to progress."

An official from the NTC in Tripoli said what happened in Bani Walid was a "limited local incident" and saw no threat emerging from it.

A doctor at a local hospital said at least seven people were killed in the violence on Monday, and an eighth person died of his wounds on Tuesday.

NTC forces on Monday drove south from the capital and took up positions 50 kilometers away from Bani Walid, as residents heard warplanes overhead.

The troops have not yet received orders to move into the town where Gaddafi loyalists fought rebel forces to a standstill before negotiating a surrender in October.

Interior Minister Fawzi Abd al-All said the NTC will not make any move against Bani Walid until it is clear what happened, but stated that they would "strike with an iron fist" anyone who posed a threat to Libyan security.

A government official in Tripoli who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the interim administration was in no hurry to get mired in the dispute since it was characterized as a spat between local factions, rather than a counter-revolution.

Jubarra gave details of the incident which, he said, caused patience to snap among the people of the town.

"On Friday, the May 28th Brigade arrested a man from Bani Walid. After Bani Walid residents lodged a protest, he was finally released. But he had been tortured.This caused an argument that escalated to arms," Jubarra explained.

"Bani Walid fighters took over the 28th May camp, confiscated weapons, and pushed them out of the city," he added.

The pro-government armed men who fled the town on Monday said their barracks were overrun by fighters flying the green flag of the old regime.

But journalists who toured Bani Walid on Tuesday saw little overt sign of such allegiances to Gaddafi, whose now captive son Saif al-Islam staged a last stand in the town before fleeing into the Sahara three months ago.

There were some graffiti that showed a lingering nostalgia for the Gaddafis in town, but there were no green flags. The most common banners flying were the red, green, and black tricolor of the NTC.

Residents who spoke to journalists insisted that the violence was not a coup d'etat, but was rather provoked by local abuses allegedly committed by the May 28th Brigade, a militia loyal to the NTC.

"When men from Tripoli come into your house and harass women, what are we to do?" said Fati Hassan, a 28-year-old Bani Walid resident who described the men of May 28th as a mixture of local men and outsiders, former anti-Gaddafi rebels who had turned into oppressors when given control over the town.

"They were arresting people from the first day after liberation. People are still missing. I am a revolutionary and I have friends in the May 28th Brigade," said Hassan, who said he urged them to ease off. "The war is over now."

Spent cartridge cases and meter-wide holes in the wall of the barracks once used by Gaddafi's army testify to an intense fight between the two sides.

Local people said the two sides exchanged fire with anti-tank weapons.

Residents also sent an anxious message to Tripoli, urging the NTC not to hit back.

"We are asking the NTC not to escalate this issue by sending troops," Jubarra said.

Another of those gathered at the mosque to form a local government, Ali Zargoun, said they would reject any attempt by NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, Libya's de facto head of state, to impose an authority on them: "If Abdel Jalil is going to force anyone on us, we won't accept that by any means."

Jalil had already warned Libyans of a "bottomless pit" if trouble goes on in a country awash with guns.

He was recently besieged in his office by protesters in Benghazi who were complaining about delays in providing services.

While Bani Walid was and remains a particular headache for the NTC, it is not alone.

Towns and cities across the country are being run with little reference to the central authority in Tripoli.

And in a number of areas old scores and local frictions are being fought over by groups that were allies in the revolt.

"The civil war has produced new conflicts that are far from settled and that have yet to play out, namely power struggles at the local level, and conflicts between local centers of power for influence at the national level," said Wolfram Lacher of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs who has been in the country researching post-Gaddafi Libya.

"Most of these are unlikely to develop into violent conflicts as in Bani Walid," Lacher said from Berlin.

"But they will be playing out across the country in the coming months."

The sporadic outburst of violence and the proliferation of weapons are major obstacles to Libyan hopes of a rapid transition to peace, democracy, and oil-fueled prosperity.

(Reuters, Al-Akhbar)