TRIPOLI (Reuters) - About 500 protesters broke into the grounds of Libya’s parliament building on Sunday to demand an end to violence in Bani Walid, a former stronghold of Muammar Gaddafi that is being shelled by militiamen from a rival town.
Militias, many from Misrata and aligned with the Defence Ministry, have been shelling the hilltop town of 70,000 people for several days. State news agency LANA said on Sunday 22 people had been killed and 200 wounded in the fighting.
“We are here to demand the government find a peaceful solution for the tribal war that is happening in Bani Walid,” protester Nasser Ehdein said.
Libya’s new rulers have led the nation to elections but have struggled to impose their authority on a country awash with weapons a year after Gaddafi was captured and killed.
Underscoring the chaos in the country, there were conflicting reports over the weekend over the fate of Gaddafi’s former spokesman and his son.
While Misrata spent weeks under siege by Gaddafi forces in last year’s war, Bani Walid was one of the towns that remained loyal to Gaddafi longest. It remains isolated from the rest of Libya and former rebels say it still harbors pockets of support for the old government.
The unarmed group of male and female protesters forced their way past security guards at the gates of the grounds of the parliament buildings in Tripoli, chanting “There is no God but God, and President (Mohammed) Magarief is God’s enemy.”
Security forces shot rounds into the air as they held their positions at the doors of the building, while elected members of the General National Congress met inside.
Ehdein said most of the protesters were residents of Tripoli who had family in or hailed from Bani Walid.
This is the second time protesters have broken into the grounds of the assembly since it took power in the summer.
The first time was on October 4 when a group of protesters who believed their town was underrepresented in a proposed Libyan government stormed the assembly as it prepared to scrutinize the prime minister-elect’s nominations.
Bani Walid militia leader Abdelkarim Ghomaid said the attacks were continuing in the town, 140 km south of Tripoli.
“The shelling is coming from all sides,” he said by phone.
A Bani Walid resident said by phone: “Fighting is continuing today. There is smoke rising over certain parts of the city.”
Outside Bani Walid, hundreds of vehicles lined up in the village of Weshtata, 80 km (50 miles) from Tripoli, waiting to be checked by government forces as families fled the fighting.
“We are escaping the danger of the rockets, the shrapnel, and the deaths inside. There hasn’t been electricity for days,” said one man who had his family in a pick-up truck.
The feud between the towns was inflamed by the death of rebel Omran Shaban after two months in detention in Bani Walid. Shaban, from Misrata, was the man who found Gaddafi hiding in a drain pipe in Sirte on October 20, 2011.
Libya’s congress ordered the Defence and Interior Ministries to find those responsible for abducting Shaban and suspected of torturing him. It gave Bani Walid a deadline to hand them over.
Hundreds of families have also fled the fighting in Bani Walid to Tarhouna, some 80 km away, where a statement from the prime minister’s office on Saturday said militias had captured former Gaddafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim.
However, in an audio clip posted on Facebook, a person purporting to be Ibrahim, who held news conferences in Tripoli during the war, dismissed news of his arrest.
There was no independent verification of the authenticity or timing of the Facebook post, dated October 20.
Some officials said Gaddafi’s son Khamis had been captured in Bani Walid and died after being taken to Misrata, however there was no official written statement from the government on this, as with previous captures of former regime figures.
On Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur said on his official Twitter account the announcement of Ibrahim’s arrest and Khamis’s death was made without confirmation of the news.
Khamis was reported dead on at least three separate occasions during last year’s conflict. A Syrian-based television station that supported Gaddafi said he had been killed in fighting southeast of Tripoli on August 29, 2011.
Additional reporting by Hadeel al-Shalchi, Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Reuters Television; Editing by Alison Williams