Moammar Gadhafi loyalists seized control of a Libyan city and raised the ousted regime’s green flag, an official and military commanders said Tuesday, in the most serious revolt yet against the country’s government.
The retaking of Bani Walid highlights the vulnerability of Libya’s new leaders, who have faced mounting criticism as they struggle to unify the oil-rich North African nations and build state institutions from scratch three months after Gadhafi was captured and killed.
The seizure also appeared to be the first major, organized operation by armed remnants of Gadhafi’s regime, adding to the security woes of the ruling National Transitional Council. The council has so far made little progress in unifying armed forces. Instead it is left reliant on multiple “revolutionary brigades,” militias made up of citizens-turned-fighters, usually all from a specific city or even neighborhood.
The militias were created during the months of civil war against Gadhafi’s forces last year and when the war ended in October, the various brigades remain in control of security affairs of each city they liberated. Though loyal to the NTC, they have also feuded among themselves and acted on their own initiative, and the council has been unable to control them.
Hundreds of well-equipped and highly trained remnants of Gadhafi’s forces battled for eight hours in Bani Walid with the local revolutionary brigade, known as the May 28 Brigade, which was eventually driven out, said Mubarak al-Fatmani, the head of Bani Walid local council. The Gadhafi loyalists then raised the green flag over buildings in the western city.
On Monday’s attack, he said four revolutionary fighters were killed and 25 others were wounded.
The revolutionary brigade had kept only a superficial control over the mountain city, a longtime Gadhafi stronghold which was one of the last to fall to NTC rule late last year.
“The only link between Bani Walid and the revolution was May 28, now it is gone and 99 percent of Bani Walid people are Gadhafi loyalists,” said the head of Bani Walid’s military council, Abdullah al-Khazmi, confirming the fall of the city. He spoke to The Associated Press at a position on the eastern outskirts of Bani Walid, where hundreds of pro-NTC reinforcements from Benghazi were deployed, with convoys of cars mounted with machine guns.
A top commander of a revolutionary brigade in Bani Walid, Ali al-Fatmani, who was present in Benghazi during the attack, says he has lost contact with other fighters in the town.
The three officials said the attackers belong to Brigade 93, a militia newly created by Gadhafi loyalists who reassembled after the fall of the regime. The fighters, flush with cash and heavy weaponry including incendiary bombs, have been increasing in power in the city, they said.
A month ago, Gadhafi loyalists attacked another revolutionary brigade from Tripoli that entered Bani Walid, killing 13, said al-Fatmani.
“The council (NTC) did absolutely nothing,” said al-Fatmani, the local council chief, who resigned from his post to protest the NTC’s failure to investigate the ambush. He still holds his position, since his resignation has not yet been accepted.
The revolt has underlined the weakness and what is seen as reluctance of the NTC in delivering and meeting promises. Protests have surged in recent weeks, with people demanding that the interim leaders deliver on promises of transparency and compensation for those injured in the fighting.
On Sunday, the head of the NTC Mustafa Abdul-Jalil suspended the Benghazi representatives on the council after protests in the city accusing the body of corruption and for not moving forward on reforms. The second top official in the NTC has also resigned. Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, was where the movement that toppled Gadhafi began and it served as the capital of the movement until Gadhafi’s fall.
Bani Walid, located in the mountains 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, was one of the last Gadhafi strongholds to fall to revolutionary forces amid a monthslong civil war. It held out for weeks after the fall of the regime, with loyalist fighters dug into its formidable terrain of valleys and crevasses.
Gadhafi’s son and longtime heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, was long believed to have been hiding in the town. Seif al-Islam, who has been charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, was captured in November by fighters from the town of Zintan in Libya’s western mountains, who continue to hold him.
The main tribe in Bani Walid is a branch of the Warfala tribal confederation, which stretches around the country with around 1 million members. The Bani Walid branch was one of the most privileged under Gadhafi, who gave them top positions and used their fighters to try to crush protesters in the early months of last year’s uprising against his rule.
Such has left the tribe with deep mistrust and enmities with the rest of the cities, especially those whose residents have suffered the most during the uprising.
The fighters who rose up in Bani Walid on Monday belong to Brigade 93, a militia created by Gadhafi loyalists who reassembled after the fall of the regime in August, said al-Khazmi and the local council chief.
The brigade is named after a famous coup against Gadhafi in 1993 by members of the Warfala tribe. Gadhafi ordered executions and arrests of all the military officers involved in the coup, except for a few. Among those spared was Salem al-Aawar, who is believed to have helped the regime uncover the plot and who is believed to head Brigade 93, said al-Khazmi.
The Britain’s Foreign Office said that tension is not between pro-Gadhafi loyalists but between tribal leaders and the National Transitional Council.
“This follows increased tensions in this area in recent weeks with local tribal leaders,” a ministry spokesman said on customary condition of anonymity. “These events underline the importance of an inclusive political process, which the Libyans are working hard to take forward together with rebuilding Libya,” he said.