TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan militias operating alongside the defense ministry shelled the former Gaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid on Wednesday, with one person killed and another 18 injured in counter-attacks, a local militia leader and a medical source said.
The hilltop town was one of the last to surrender last year to the rebels who overthrew longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi. It has come back into focus with the death last month of rebel fighter Omran Shaban after two months of detention in Bani Walid.
Shaban, from nearby Misrata, was the man who found Gaddafi hiding in a drain pipe in Sirte on October 20, 2011.
Libya’s ruling national congress had ordered the defense and interior ministries to find those who abducted Shaban and were suspected of torturing him to death, and given Bani Walid a deadline to hand them over.
Elders have tried to negotiate a solution as militias have taken up position around parts of the town, at times clashing with local fighters.
“Bani Walid has been shelled since this morning from three sides - the south, the east and southeast,” Colonel Salem al-Wa’er, a spokesman for Bani Walid’s fighters, said by phone.
Without giving details, he said one person had been killed and that Bani Walid fighters had stopped a car which was carrying gas masks. A Misrata hospital source said 18 fighters from Misrata had been injured in counter attacks from Bani Walid.
Militia forces from Misrata and other towns, operating together in a coalition known as Libya Shield affiliated to the Defence Ministry, have deployed around parts of Bani Walid.
Shelling last week came mainly from the area of al-Mardum, about 25 km (15 miles) along the road to Misrata.
A military source said no order of an assault had been given from the army chief of staff on Wednesday.
Tensions between Misrata and Bani Walid underscore the challenge Libya’s new rulers face in reconciling groups with long-running grievances.
While Misrata spent weeks under siege by Gaddafi forces in last year’s war, Bani Walid, 140 km (90 miles) away, was one of those that remained loyal to Gaddafi longest. The town of around 70,000 remains isolated from the rest of Libya and former rebels say it still harbors pockets of support for the old regime.
Reporting by Ali Shuaib; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Michael Roddy