The Guardian, 25th October 2012
Bani Walid was supposed to be safe. The last of Muammar Gaddafi‘s loyalists were supposed to have been purged from this Libyan desert town, after an eight-day offensive by the army. Instead, there was mayhem here on Thursday, as it became clear the Gaddafi loyalists are far from beaten.
A mile into what has become a ghost town after weeks of fighting and siege, a checkpoint of tense young pro-government militiamen barred entry, saying fighting was continuing. The staccatto boom of an anti-aircraft gun mingled with the heavy thumps of rocket-propelled grenades from somewhere inside the town.
Told to turn back, the Guardian found the road into townjammed with cars bringing several hundred refugees back home. Barring their way were two sand-coloured militia pick-up trucks.
A bearded government militia commander could be seen with his pistol jammed against the head of the driver of a black sedan who was revving his engine. The commander withdrew his pistol, firing twice into the air, and the crowd panicked.
Seconds later one of the teenage militiaman opened fire with a machine gun, the bullets blasting over the heads of the terrified refugees.
Opening the back door of the car the Guardian was travelling, a man in a blue shirt lunged in, screaming that we should stay and witness what was happening. Then he scampered forwards, leaned in and began wrestling with the driver for the car keys. The driver put his foot down, the car shot forward, then swerved as a terrified little girl in a black dress ran into our path.
We cleared the throng and stopped to talk with frightened refugees, some in shock. “We ask them (the militia) ‘what do you think your are doing’, then they shoot in the air,” said a bearded man in a black shirt who refused to give his name.
“Our government says we can come home, it was on TV, and the militia says no,” said Mohammed Hamzen, wearing a long golden robe. “I am here with my children. What can I do with them?”
With thousands of angry refugees stranded on the desert highway, and pro-Gaddafi gunmen still resisting inside the town, Libya‘s government has been left flat-footed by a crisis fast turning into its worst nightmare.
After the UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, called for restraint from both sides, the Libyan government has been anxious to complete the capture of the town it says has been home to Gaddafi loyalists blamed for a string of kidnaps and murders.
Instead, the battle continues and the anger of the refugees is sharpened because Eid, Islam’s key festival, begins on Friday.
Also clear is that it is the army, not its leaders, who are calling the shots. Last Friday, chief-of-staff Youssef Mangoush announced a 48-hour ceasefire to allow refugees to leave, but the following day the army launched its heaviest offensive of the battle, which has already cost an estimated 20 dead and 200 wounded.
On Wednesday Mangoush announced the military operation was over and the town had been handed back to civil control. The reality on Thursday was that resistance has not yet been crushed.
The aim of the Bani Walid operation was to eliminate the last resistance to a government itself in chaos, with parliament unable to agree a cabinet three months after being elected. Instead, the offensive has inflamed Bani Walid, and seen anti-government protests and shooting in another former Gaddafi stronghold, Sirte. The longed-for consensus July’s elections were supposed to deliver remains a distant prospect.