TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan militias captured Muammar Gaddafi’s former spokesman on Saturday, exactly a year after the dictator’s death, while leader Mohammed Magarief said some areas of the country still needed to be fully “liberated”.
While Libya was declared “liberated” a few days after Gaddafi’s capture and its new rulers have led the nation to elections, they have struggled to impose their authority on a country awash with weapons.
Moussa Ibrahim, who was the mouthpiece of the Gaddafi regime during last year’s war, was caught in the town of Tarhouna, 70 km (40 miles) south of Tripoli.
“Moussa Ibrahim has been arrested by forces belonging to the Libyan government in the town of Tarhouna and he is being transferred to Tripoli to begin interrogation,” a statement from the prime minister’s office said.
The government has previously made false claims regarding the capture of Gaddafi loyalists, and produced no photographs on Saturday showing Ibrahim in detention.
His whereabouts have been unknown since the fall of the capital in August 2011. The government claimed to have caught him last October but he called Reuters to deny the report.
Fluent in English, Ibrahim would hold regular press conferences in the luxury Tripoli hotel were journalists stayed during last year’s war.
Former revolutionary fighters have maintained Gaddafi loyalists have used the town of Bani Walid as a safe haven, protected by the large Warfala tribe which has historically been loyal to Gaddafi’s tribe.
Speaking on Libyan television late on Friday about the insecurity still plaguing parts of the country, national congress leader Magarief singled out Bani Walid, some 160 kms (100 miles) south of Tripoli.
The former Gaddafi stronghold has seen deadly clashes in the last few days as the army struggles to impose order.
“The campaign to liberate the country has not been fully completed,” Magarief said.
He cited “delays” in the formation of the army and police and the failure to disarm and integrate former rebels.
“This lack of care has led to the spread of chaos that has lured the old regime to infiltrate the country’s institutions inside and to conspire with the regime loyalists on the outside,” Magarief said.
“And the chaos has lured others to kidnappings, stealing, and to create non-legitimate prisons. What has happened in Bani Walid in the last few days falls under this ... it has become a safe haven for a large number of those who are outside of the law.”
Militias, aligned with the Defence Ministry, have shelled the hilltop town of 70,000 for several days. A spokesman for the Bani Walid militia, Colonel Salem al-Wa‘er said fighting started again on Saturday morning.
“Now with the capture of Ibrahim, our forces are beginning to cleanse Bani Walid from people still aligned with Gaddafi’s regime,” said Khaled al-Khafifi, deputy head of the February 17 brigade, Benghazi’s largest militia.
Many other militia members are from the rival town of Misrata, which was enraged by the death of rebel fighter 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 to death. It gave Bani Walid a deadline to hand them over.
The army chief of staff said on Thursday the army was heading to the town to try and restore order.
“This is not targeting a region, a tribe, or unarmed civilians but outlawed men,” Magarief said.
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 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.
Additional Reporting By Hadeel Al-Shalchi and Ghaith Shennib in Benghazi; Editing by Sophie Hares