Worn out after weeks without proper food and water, refugees gushing out of one of Muammar Gaddafi’s last strongholds implored fighters backing Libya’s new rulers to hurry up and rescue their families trapped inside the beleaguered town.
One of the last flashpoints in Libya’s seven-month war, the desert town of Bani Walid has been under siege for two weeks, with die-hard Gaddafi loyalists dug into its steep valleys and hills, stoutly resisting advancing interim government troops.
Wary of alienating a powerful local tribe, provisional government forces massing outside the oasis town ceased fire this week to give civilians a chance to flee before storming Bani Walid, Reuters reports.
A difficult terrain of treacherous hills and steep, sun-scorched valleys has also kept their advance in check, with most Gaddafi snipers and rocket launchers concentrated on higher ground inside the city.
More than a quarter of Bani Walid’s roughly 100,000 population has now fled, but residents said many more people were trapped by feared Gaddafi militiamen threatening to shoot anyone leaving their homes.
Some of the refugees were openly angry at the lack of progress.
“Why are you waiting?” shouted Ramadan Karim after crossing the lines and stopping at a checkpoint manned by anti-Gaddafi fighters on the northern edge of the city.
Shaking his fist and leaning out of his car’s window, he yelled at the soldiers: “Go in now! Rescue them! Our people are trapped inside! It’s a ghost city! It’s enough! It’s enough!”
With ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) troops frozen in their positions, some civilians seized on the lull in fighting to get their families out themselves.
“My family is trapped inside,” said one man, Sharef Saleh, as he drove into Bani Walid. “I am going in to rescue them. I am not afraid.”
Although their numbers had been believed to be in the low hundreds, Gaddafi militiamen have put up stiffer than expected resistance, shelling their opponents’ positions with rocket launchers and threatening civilians via radio messages.
“A number of rebels stayed at home with us and my walls are now full of bullet holes,” said Yusef al Hazmi, a farmer driving out of the city with a dozen noisy sheep packed into the back of his truck.
“People are puzzled why it’s taking so long, why rebels are not coming. Gaddafi militiamen have put their anti-aircraft guns and snipers on the roofs of schools, civilian houses, mosques.”
Libya’s new national army, deployed by the NTC from Tripoli and other big cities, has been reinforcing positions in preparation for a full scale attack after earlier attempts to retake the city, led by less experienced local fighters, failed earlier this month.
Libya’s new rulers are desperate to avoid another botched attempt to retake the town — an event that could derail Tripoli’s efforts to put the country firmly on the path of reconstruction.
Field commanders around Bani Walid said they were under strict orders to proceed slowly and avoid the loss of civilian life as much as possible.
“We are not using the same tactics as Gaddafi. We want to help our people, all Libyans,” said Hafid Bellal, an anti-Gaddafi fighter.
For now, the frontline is in a state of limbo. At dusty checkpoints north of the city, soldiers wait patiently for the green light to advance, gazing at the distant haze of Bani Walid’s low-rise skyline from their distant desert positions.
They said commanders had rescinded orders to advance several times at the last minute, contributing to the sense of nervousness on the ground.
As they waited, troops fired volleys of machinegun fire into the empty desert and stamped on Gaddafi’s green flag confiscated from a suspected loyalist, shouting, “Gaddafi out! Libya is free”.
Explosions boomed around the valley as soldiers test-fired rocket propelled grenades in a show of strength.
Honking wildly and flashing victory signs at NTC fighters greeting them outside the gates, many refugees were visibly relieved.
“I am so happy to see you! We have been trapped there for months!” said one man, Akram. “Gaddafi militiamen are cowards. Everyone is with you.”