Abdel Magid Al Fergany, Associated Press
WISHTATA, Libya — Libyan fighters launched a two-pronged assault Friday on one of the last towns to resist the country's new rulers, clashing with Moammar Gadhafi's supporters inside Bani Walid as a week-long standoff dissolved into street-to-street battles, the former rebels said.
The former rebels had set a Saturday deadline for Bani Walid to surrender or face an offensive but decided to attack Friday evening after Gadhafi forces fired volleys of rockets at the fighters' positions around the town.
Abdullah Kenshil, the former rebels' chief negotiatior, said the former rebels were fighting gunmen positioned in houses in the town and the hills that overlooked it.
Anti-Gadhafi forces were moving in from the east and south, and the fighters deepest inside Bani Walid were clashing with Gadhafi's men about a mile (2 kilometers) from the center of the town, Kenshil said.
Before the reported Friday evening assault, Gadhafi holdouts in Bani Walid fired mortars and rockets toward the fighters' position in a desert dotted with green shrubs and white rocks, killing at least one and wounding several. Loud explosions were heard about six miles (10 kilometers) from the front line, followed by plumes of black smoke in the already hazy air. NATO planes circled above.
NATO says it is acting under a U.N. mandate to guarantee the safety of Libya's civilian population. Its bombing campaign has been crucial to the advance of Gadhafi's military opponents.
Daw Salaheen, the chief commander for the anti-Gadhafi forces' operation at Bani Walid, said his fighters responded with their own rocket fire, and advanced on the town.
"They are inside the city. They are fighting with snipers," Kenshil said. "They forced this on us and it was in self-defense."
He said three Gadhafi loyalists had been wounded and three killed, while the former rebels had one dead and four wounded. He said the former rebels had taken seven prisoners.
Kenshil said the former rebels believed that there were about 600 Gadhafi supporters in and around Bani Walid.
"Snipers are scattered over the hills and the rebels want to chase them," he said. "There is hand-to-hand combat. The population is afraid so we have to go and protect civilians."
Interpol said it had issued its top most-wanted alert for the arrest of Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's ex-chief of military intelligence. The three are sought by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity, and there have been reports Seif al-Islam is in Bani Walid.
The elder Gadhafi hasn't been seen in public for months and went underground after anti-regime fighters swept into Tripoli on Aug. 21. As the National Transitional Council tries to establish its authority in Libya, speculation about Gadhafi's whereabouts has centered on his Mediterranean hometown of Sirte, southern Sabha, and Bani Walid, 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. Gadhafi loyalists in all three towns have been given until Saturday to surrender, or face an all-out battle.
Officials in the National Transitional Council — which is the closest thing to a government Libya has now but still has only shaky authority — had set a Saturday deadline for the city of 100,000 to surrender. They have hoped to negotiate a peaceful entry into the city, but talks with local leaders have gone nowhere.
Before the former rebels announced their offensive, the dozens of fighters deployed at checkpoints outside the city were clearly impatient to move in.
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