Confusion hampering charge on Gaddafi desert bastion

BANI WALID, Sept 18 Sun Sep 18, 2011 4:33pm EDT

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BANI WALID, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Confused orders, no central command and dissent in the ranks are holding up efforts by Libya's provisional government to take the Muammar Gaddafi bastion of Bani Walid, fighters said.

On Sunday, ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) forces fled in a chaotic retreat from the town, after failing in another attempt to storm the desert stronghold.

Bani Walid, along with Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte, and the remote but important town of Sabha, is one of the last places frustrating NTC efforts to take control of the whole country.

Attempts to storm it for the last three days have failed -- with surprised NTC fighters being pushed out of the town by heavy rocket and sniper fire from Gaddafi loyalists.

Fighting has been chaotic and scattershot with different brigades arguing amongst themselves, Tripoli fighters not getting along with local fighters, and talk of traitors infiltrating the ranks and sabotaging the assault.

"I've never seen anything like this," Sabri Salem, a former pilot in Gaddafi's airforce who switched sides, told Reuters.

Salem, who commands a rebel brigade from the town of Zawiya and who took part in the successful operation to take Tripoli, has been shocked by the lack of organisation since he arrived.

"We just showed up and nobody asked us any questions," he said, shaking his head. "We just drove in to Bani Walid."

Salem and his brigade were told on Sunday that there was a huge NTC force already inside Bani Walid and that they should advance towards the town to join it.

"But there was absolutely nobody," he said. "Then we came under very intense fire from Gaddafi forces and retreated."

"I"M GOING HOME"

Salem's complaints are echoed by other fighters, many of whom have been camped outside the town for more than two weeks and the majority of whom thought the assault would be easier.

The story is similar at Sirte, where NTC forces have made better progress but have still been held back by Gaddafi loyalists through three days of heavy fighting.

The failure to capture the towns is a serious setback to a new government trying to exert its control over all of Libya and shore up the remaining bastions of the man who ruled it eccentrically for 42 years.

The Bani Walid front was reinforced with 1,000 fighters over the last few days, many of them in uniform and identifying themselves as from Libya's "national army".

At Sirte, more than 900 vehicles are involved in the fight on one front and 400 are trying to approach from another.

Yet, still, no victory.

"There's no central command, just isolated groups of 10 to 20 fighters all acting on their own," said Salem. "Last night the national army retreated -- half of them went home, the other half are stationed somewhere in the desert."

Some of the NTC men outside Bani Walid blame traitors, others blame snipers, many blame the oil the Gaddafi men pour down the steep streets leading to the city centre.

They also say that the better commanders and strategists are at Sirte -- perhaps because, as a port town and the one-time home of Gaddafi -- it is more strategically important.

Some wonder aloud why the NTC doesn't just take the towns one by one.

Later on Sunday, after the majority of the NTC forces had pulled out, another couple of brigades raced towards the town despite orders to hold position outside the town.

"If it goes on like this I'm going home," said Salem. (Writing by Barry Malone; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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