Frustration, zeal mix in siege of Gadhafi bastion

Published: Sunday, Sept. 18 2011 9:47 p.m. MDT

Former rebel fighters put a pre-Gadhafi flag at the northern gate of Bani Walid, as smokes rises from the town, Libya, Sunday, Sept. 18, 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. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

Associated Press

WADI DINAR, Libya — The rockets and mortars rained down on the position where the revolutionaries had retreated on the outskirts of the mountainous stronghold of Moammar Gadhafi's loyalists. So, in a fury, the fighters charged wild and unorganized Sunday back into the city for yet another day of fighting.

Fighters for Libya's new rulers have been throwing themselves into the battle to take Bani Walid for days with no progress against the old regime loyalists, strongly fortified and bristling with heavy weaponry. The frustration is showing among the amateur revolutionary fighters.

"We expected this kind of resistance from Gadhafi forces, but I thought we could take them on," said Mohannad Bendalla, a doctor treating wounded fighters at a field hospital set up outside of the city.

The official, trained military of the National Transitional Council, Libya's interim government, has pulled away from Bani Walid to regroup and reinforce for a new assault after they were heavily beaten in the city Friday. That has left ragtag, undisciplined volunteers at the front line. Most are youths from the most die-hard revolutionary neighborhoods of Tripoli, like Souq al-Jomaa or Tajoura, strong on zeal to kill some Gadhafi supporters and weak on training on how to do so.

The amateur Tripoli fighters get lost in the neighborhoods rolling up and down Bani Walid's confusing mountain ravines. Behind the front lines, frustrated fighters turn blame on the Bani Walid Brigade, units of city residents who are fighting alongside them but whose loyalties some of them suspect.

The new leadership is facing a tough fight uprooting the remnants of Gadhafi's regime nearly four weeks after the then-rebels rolled into Tripoli on Aug. 21 and ousted the now fugitive leader. Bani Walid, southeast of the capital, is just one holdout. Fighting is also raging at Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown on the Mediterranean coast. The regime stronghold of Sabha lies hundreds of miles away in the southern deserts, and there are others deep in the central deserts like the cities of Houn and Zallah.

The battle at Sirte, launched Friday, has also been fierce, but there the revolutionaries have been more organized and have made slow progress.

Most of the fighters besieging Sirte are from Misrata, a city further northwest along the coast that survived a brutal weeks-long siege by Gadhafi forces during the civil war. That conflict left them battle-hardened and savvy on the tactics of urban fighting. Regular truckloads of fuel and food arrive from Misrata to keep the fighters supplied outside Sirte.

"We deserve our reputation," said Ali el-Hani, a Misrata native leaning back against his pickup truck mounted with an anti-aircraft gun.

The past three days, they have battled block by block into the western side of Sirte, along the beach and along a eucalyptus tree-lined main avenue parallel to the coast. Other fighters in the low hills to the south have been drumming Gadhafi strongpoints in the flat plain of the city below with rockets and mortars. At least two dozen fighters were killed Saturday, but commanders say they gain ground each day. Another revolutionary unit from Benghazi — further to the east — claimed to be fighting its way to Sirte's eastern side to open up a second front.

Late Sunday, Gadhafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim charged that revolutionary fighters have killed "hundreds every day." He told the Syrian Al-Rai TV station, which has become the Gadhafi mouthpiece, "Sirte is the symbol of resistance in Libya." He did not say where he or Gadhafi were.

Bani Walid, perched in the mountains 90 miles southeast of Tripoli, is far tougher to besiege.

A desert valley, called Wadi Zeitoun, runs through the center of the city, dividing it into north and south. In the southern part, loyalists command the heights of 100-foot-high escarpments overlooking the valley. Revolutionaries moving in through the city's northern half have reached the edge of the valley several times in the past few days, only to be pummeled by gunfire, mortars and rockets from the other side.

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