Civilians flee besieged former Gaddafi stronghold in Libya

WADI DINAR, Libya Mon Oct 22, 2012 3:47pm EDT

1 of 3. A car with a family fleeing Bani Walid stops at a checkpoint on its way to Tarhouna October 22, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Ismail Zitouny

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WADI DINAR, Libya (Reuters) - Families fleeing violence in the besieged Libyan city of Bani Walid said on Monday there were shortages of food and water and the city's hospital was under fire as militias loyal to the government shelled the former stronghold of Muammar Gaddafi.

The isolated hilltop town some 140 km (100 miles) south of Tripoli was one of the last to surrender to the rebels who overthrew Gaddafi last year.

Pro-government forces moved up to Bani Walid early this month after militiaman Omran Shaban died after two months in detention there. Shaban, from the rival city of Misrata, was the man who found Gaddafi hiding in a drain pipe outside Sirte on October 20, 2011.

Libya's congress ordered the Defense and Interior Ministries to find those suspected of abducting, torturing and killing Shaban. It gave Bani Walid a deadline to hand them over.

The siege of Bani Walid highlights the government's inability to reconcile former rebel fighters and Gaddafi loyalists, and also its failure to bring many of the militias that deposed the dictator fully under its control.

In scenes reminiscent of the civil war, scores of cars filled with families, and pick-up trucks loaded down with mattresses, children and food lined up at a government-run check point outside Bani Walid hoping to escape the violence.

"We haven't slept in days from the fear of dying and the sounds of shelling," said Mohammed Abdel-Salam as his car was checked. "My house was shelled with a rocket and destroyed. Medicine is becoming scarce in pharmacies, even food in shops."

Two pro-government fighters were killed near Bani Walid on Monday, one of the militiamen said. Libya state news agency LANA said on Sunday that 22 pro-government militiamen had been killed and some 200 wounded, but it did not say when.

AGE-OLD FEUD

In the western part of Bani Walid, a number of fleeing families were forced back to the city when militias opened fire at their convoy, a tribal elder inside the city told Reuters.

"The families wanted to take their children away from the violence but militias under the guise of government forces shot at them to make them turn back," said Mohammed Shetawi.

Shetawi spoke by telephone from the suburbs of Bani Walid where he was helping families attempt to flee.

He said the central Bani Walid General Hospital had come under rocket attack and patients had to be evacuated on Sunday.

"The injured have been sent to hiding places, private homes and mosques, he said. "We hope these armed gangs will respect the mosques, but we don't think so."

Wounded from Bani Walid, including women and children, were being treated in the nearby town of Tarhouna where hospital officials appealed for medicine.

Shetawi blamed fighters from Misrata for attacking Bani Walid. "What you are seeing in Bani Walid is an age-old tribal feud between Misrata and Bani Walid, and the militias are using the government as protection," he said

Natives of Bani Walid have demonstrated across Libya demanding a peaceful solution to the conflict. About 500 protesters broke into the grounds of Libya's parliament building on Sunday to demand an end to the violence in Bani Walid.

Some 400 protesters also stormed the offices of a private television station in the eastern city of Benghazi on Saturday after it announced the arrest of Gaddafi-era government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim and the capture and death of the dictator's son, Khamis Gaddafi.

No evidence was provided for either claim, and officials later apologized for announcing the news without confirmation.

"They are using this news to justify their violent actions against Bani Walid," said Shetawi. "If they can pretend they have captured Gaddafi supporters inside the city then they think Libyans will support their campaign of violence."

(Additonal reporting by Hadeel Al-Shalchi; Writing by Hadeel Al-Shalchi; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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