NEAR BANI WALID (Reuters) - Gazing patiently at the distant haze of its low-rise skyline, anti-Gaddafi fighters have camped in the desert outside the besieged Libyan oasis town of Bani Walid for two weeks waiting for the chance to move inside.
The battle finally started on Friday, with provisional government forces rolling into the town. But resistance from pro-Gaddafi forces was immediate and fierce.
Fighters loyal to the new National Transitional Council (NTC) government braved heavy sniper fire and rockets to move deeper into the valley to the sound of deafening explosions and booming artillery.
It was a messy battle. Although anti-Gaddafi fighters quickly secured the northern edge of Bani Walid, the advance stalled as they reached the densely populated hills of the center.
Black smoke swirled above the sun-scorched city as fighters advanced slowly, street-by-street, securing houses and setting up checkpoints and makeshift field clinics.
The valley reverberated with explosions as both sides relentlessly hurled mortar bombs at each other’s positions. Bullets flew overhead and fighters shouted “God is greatest” as falling shells rattled the rockey valleys.
After weeks spent in the tranquility of the desert, the city was suddenly a wild cacophony of explosions, artillery and heavy machine-gun fire.
There were almost no civilians in the deserted streets but some residents peeked hesitantly into the smoke-filled byways for a glimpse of what their once sleepy town had become.
“It’s great that the rebels are finally here,” said one man who took the chance to speak, Khalil Mohamed, a 31-year-old farmer. “At first we were afraid because we didn’t know who they were but now that we have seen them, we are very happy.”
The frontline was filled with chaotic scenes — bullets ricocheted off houses, hitting vehicles and barriers made from sand bags. Shells landed scattershot all over the valley, the smoke still rising above the town.
The advance was slow and tough and Gaddafi forces stoutly defended the city. Hours into the battle, which started at around midday, NTC fighters had not advanced much.
Bullet-dodging ambulances and rebel vehicles dashed back and forth from the frontline, and fighters shouted at each other frantically.
Gunmen gesticulated wildly, some adjusting their strategy on the go, scrawling hasty battle plans on the dusty walls of residential houses and small shops.
Despite the confusion, NTC fighters managed to snatch some pro-Gaddafi men off the streets.
“This is one of Gaddafi’s dogs,” Fasel Aboaiisha, an NTC fighter Britain told Reuters, gesturing at a man in a Gaddafi-era uniform. “We have arrested 17 of them. They are all military.”
Gaddafi’s green flags, many of them in tatters, flew above some houses in a symbol of stubborn defiance from those who still hold the man they used to call “Colonel” dear.
Even in the heat of fighting, anti-Gaddafi fighters found time to strip a portrait of him from a nearby building and stamp on it, clapping and chanting defiantly.
Some were unimpressed by the fighting and squatted behind concrete walls clutching their rifles, smoking cigarettes, and eating rice with almonds distributed by a nearby field kitchen.
Rumors spread like wildfire on the frontline. Panting and shouting at each other, fighters described how they had entered the Bani Walid residence of Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam and captured several of his bodyguards, though it was impossible to verify this and unclear if Saif was still in the town.
“It’s hell over there. It’s very heavy fighting,” NTC fighter, Jamal Bendalla, told Reuters after he came back from the front.
The explosions that punctuated the initial advance into Bani Walid had petered out by late afternoon, though chaotic fighting went on as the evening set in and shadows grew longer.
By the end of a long day for many, six NTC fighters lay dead and 54 wounded in one field hospital, though doctors said there could be more fallen in other clinics nearby.
“I was upset,” said one bewildered doctor, Muhamed Bendalla, “I had expected it to end today.”
Editing by Barry Malone