Gadhafi loyalists' fight raises fear of long insurgency

Libyan revolutionary forces repelled an attack by Moammar Gadhafi loyalists on Sunday but faced fierce resistance from a valley separating them from the loyalist stronghold of Bani Walid, fighters said.
A former rebel fighter looks at rocket explosions near the road leading to Bani Walid, in Wadi Dinar, Libya, on Sunday. (Alexandre Meneghini/Associated Press)

Libyan revolutionary forces repelled an attack by Moammar Gadhafi loyalists on Sunday but faced fierce resistance from a valley separating them from the loyalist stronghold of Bani Walid, fighters said.

Explosions resounded across the area and smoke rose on the horizon as the two sides exchanged fire with rockets and anti-aircraft missiles.

The former rebels said they made the push without orders from commanders Sunday after forces loyal to Gadhafi shelled revolutionary lines at Bani Walid's northern gate.

"We had no command to enter the city, but they are rocketing us and throwing mortars at us, so we had to push through," said Sherif Tajouri, a 41-year-old member of a brigade from the nearby town of Tajoura.

Smoke rises as a rocket explodes Sunday at the northern gate of Bani Walid, Libya, where revolutionary fighters launched a new push to defeat one of the last bastions of the old regime. (Alexandre Meneghini/Associated Press)

NATO aircraft circled the area, but former rebels say there was no sign of airstrikes.

Life has begun to return to normal in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, but loyalist fighters are refusing to back down in the fight for control of Bani Walid and Sirte, the other pro-Gadhafi stronghold.

Their determination has raised the spectre of a prolonged insurgency in the country, similar to what Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced, says Borzou Daragahi, a Financial Times correspondent in Tripoli.

Making gains

Despite the loyalists’ resistance, the interim Libyan government has made advances during what at times has been a see-saw battle in the past week, Daragahi said in a report for CBC News on Sunday.

"Even in Bani Walid, which has been somewhat of a debacle, they have managed to move closer and set up their staging area closer to the outskirts of the city than before," said Daragahi.

"But yes, absolutely this level of determination suggests that what is now sort of bastions of Gadhafi support could later turn into some kind of persistent insurgency."

Daragahi said details from the battlefield at Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown, have been hard to get.

"It’s extremely dangerous over there," he said. "Some journalists have been shot, in fact, in that area."

The many families fleeing the coastal city include Abdul Aziz, a 35-year-old businessman, his wife and three young children, who decided to leave Sirte after fighting broke out near their house on Saturday. Aziz said living conditions are difficult in the city of some 100,000 people.

No power or medicine

"There hasn't been power in Sirte for a long time," he said Sunday as revolutionary forces searched his car, which was loaded with clothes, onions and baby powder. "Sometimes there is water, sometimes there isn't. There is food for now but no medicine.

"It's very dangerous in Sirte, yesterday they were fighting near my house, my kids are very scared — that is why I want to get them out."

Daragahi said the loyalists seem well-supplied with arms, but it’s not clear how long they can hold out.

"I’m sure there are huge warehouses of weapons in there, but not an infinite supply. In addition, the heavy weaponry that the Gadhafi forces use is subject to a potential NATO bombardment. NATO is still in the air and is still hitting targets."

The whereabouts of Gadhafi and several of his sons remain unknown. Other family members have fled to neighbouring Algeria and Niger.

Loyalists urged to keep fighting

The pro-regime radio station in Sirte has been broadcasting a recorded message it said was from Gadhafi, urging the city's defenders to fight on.

"You must resist fiercely. You must kick them out of Sirte," the voice said. "If they get inside Sirte, they are going to rape the women." The voice resembled Gadhafi's but its authenticity could not be confirmed.

Gadhafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, vowed, "We have the ability to continue this resistance for months," in a phone call Friday to Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become the mouthpiece for the former regime.

Libya's new rulers, meanwhile, are pressing forward with efforts to assert authority over the country. The National Transitional Council planned a news conference to announce a new cabinet lineup.

That would show progress in forming a new government ahead of the United Nations General Assembly this week.

With files from the CBC