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Civilians flee pro-Gaddafi town ahead of assault

Sep 13, 2011, 9:28 p.m.
Civilians flee as forces clash in Bani Walid, September 12, 2011. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

By Maria Golovnina

NORTH GATE OF BANI WALID, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan fighters handed out free petrol to help hundreds of civilians flee a desert town held by Muammar Gaddafi's forces ahead of an onslaught aimed at capturing one of the ousted ruler's last bastions.

Complaining of hardship and intimidation, residents of Bani Walid headed to nearby towns or started the 180 km (112-mile) journey north toward Tripoli on Tuesday in cars packed with children and possessions.

Forces of the new ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) that overran Tripoli on August 23 have met unexpectedly stout resistance in five days of fighting for Bani Walid, a sun-baked town set in rocky hills and valleys.

Along with Gaddafi's hometown Sirte on the Mediterranean coast and Sabha in the southern desert, Bani Walid is one of the last strongholds of old regime fighters.

Their dogged resistance has complicated NTC efforts to normalize life in the oil-rich North African state and the United Nations has voiced fears about the plight of civilians marooned inside besieged pro-Gaddafi towns, particularly Sirte.

Gaddafi's whereabouts are unknown. NTC officials have said he could be hiding in one of the outposts like Bani Walid, helping to rally a last stand against NATO-backed forces.

Residents escaping Bani Walid on Monday and Tuesday reported days of intense street-to-street fighting. They began to slip out after Gaddafi forces abandoned some checkpoints on the outskirts.

"It's too dangerous to go outside. Militia men are hiding around the city and (pro-Gaddafi) green flags are everywhere," 25-year-old resident Abdulbaset Mohamed Mohamed said, driving toward Tripoli.

NTC field commanders said people in Bani Walid had been told via broadcast radio messages they had two days to leave town before it came under full-blown attack.

"I think only 10 percent of the people are Gaddafi supporters. They are fanatics. And the rest are waiting to be liberated. We have given them two more days to leave the city," NTC fighter Abumuslim Abdu told Reuters.

The country's new rulers have hesitated to employ heavy-handed tactics to seize Bani Walid, which is home to the Warfalla tribe, Libya's largest.

SECURITY AND LEGITIMACY

Libya's interim rulers have said that, along with taking control of pro-Gaddafi enclaves, capturing or killing the fugitive leader is a priority and only then could Libya be declared "liberated."

The U.S. State Department said one of his sons, Saadi Gaddafi, who arrived in neighboring Niger on Sunday on one of four convoys of senior Gaddafi loyalists to have crossed the southern Sahara desert frontier, was being held there.

"Our understanding is, like the others, he's being detained in a state guest house," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in Washington on Tuesday.

"It's essentially a house arrest in this government facility, is our understanding," she said, adding that Niger was working with Libya's interim rulers on the issue. Niger said on Monday it was keeping Saadi Gaddafi under surveillance but had not detained him.

In Tripoli, officials trying to restore security said they needed to integrate the fighters who toppled Gaddafi into the police force to ensure the revolution's legitimacy.

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