Libyan forces plot moves after Bani Walid setback

By Ryan Lucas

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Sept. 17 2011 2:30 a.m. MDT

Former rebel fighters walk on a main road in Bani Walid, Libya, Friday, Sept. 16, 2011. Libyan fighters are streaming into Bani Walid, one of the remaining bastions of ousted leader Moammar Gadhafi, in a new fierce push. The revolutionary forces, in dozens of pickup trucks mounted with heavy weapons, are making their way from the north into the town center.

Alexandre Meneghini, Associated Press

BANI WALID, Libya — Revolutionary fighters struggled to regroup Saturday outside the loyalist stronghold of Bani Walid after being driven back by fierce resistance from followers of Moammar Gadhafi, temporarily quieting one battlefield while a second offensive sought to capture Gadhafi's hometown from followers of his shattered regime.

There were no signs anti-Gadhafi forces were seeking to make a swift counter punch into Bani Walid, a mountain enclave about 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. The fighters withdrew Friday after facing withering sniper fire and shelling from loyalists units holding strategic positions above the valley entrance to the town.

"This may be the worst front Libya will see," said fighter Osama Al-Fassi. "I don't think we will have orders to move in today."

Meanwhile, more families fled the town. At least a dozen cars streamed out during the lull in the combat.

The tough defense of the holdout bastions of Bani Walid and Sirte — on Libya's central Mediterranean coast — displayed the firepower and resolve of the Gadhafi followers and suggested Libya's new rulers may not easily break the back of regime holdouts. It also raised fears the country could face a protracted insurgency of the sort that has played out in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The Gadhafi loyalists have so many weapons," cried Maab Fatel, a 28-year-old revolutionary fighter on the front lines in Bani Walid on Friday.

"This battle is really crazy," Fatel said, his uniform splattered with blood from carrying a wounded comrade.

Revolutionary forces began Friday by streaming into Bani Walid but pulled back after intense fighting failed to dislodge pro-Gadhafi snipers and gunners from strategic positions. The two sides traded relentless mortar and rocket fire across a 500-yard-wide desert valley called Wadi Zeitoun that divides the town between north and south.

Mohaned Bendalla, a doctor at a field hospital in nearby Wishtata, said at least six rebels were killed and more than 50 were wounded in Friday's battles.

Inside the town, a radio station believed linked to one of Gadhafi's main propagandist kept up a steady stream of appeals to fight and rants that demonized the revolutionaries as traitors who did not honor Islamic values.

"These revolutionaries are fighting to drink and do drugs all the time and be like the West, dance all night," the announcer claimed. "We are a traditional tribal society that refuses such things and must fight it."

Ahmed Omar Bani, a military spokesman for Libya's transitional government, dismissed such allegations, saying the revolutionary forces' only goal was "to liberate our people."

In Sirte — the second part of the twin offensives — Gadhafi's backers rained gunfire down from mosque minarets and high-rise buildings on fighters pushing into the city from the west. In the streets the two sides battered each other with high-caliber machine guns, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades.

At one point, a pickup truck filled with revolutionary forces rushed back to the rear lines, its bed bloodied and strewn with the body parts and mangled face of a fighter who had been manning a machine gun. Other fighters shouting "God is great" pulled out his lifeless remains and comforted his partner, the pickup driver.

Gadhafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said loyalist forces inflicted a heavy blow Friday on their enemies, killing many and taking many others hostage.

"We have the ability to continue this resistance for months," he said in a phone call Friday to Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become the mouthpiece for the former regime.

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