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Civilians flee pro-Gaddafi town ahead of assault

Sep 14, 2011, 12:05 a.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 transitional government forces handed out free petrol to help hundreds of civilians flee a desert town held by Muammar Gaddafi's loyalists 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 the capital 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.

Bani Walid resident and NTC supporter Isa Amr, 35, said the town was running out of fuel, food and water, making it impossible for his family to stay any longer.

"Rebels gave us some petrol, enough to drive to Tripoli. The rebels are really helping us," he said, driving away with his wife and three young children.

Amr said the NTC was handing out free fuel at the northern entrance to Bani Walid to smooth the evacuation.

Abdulbaset Mohamed Mohamed, 25, another Bani Walid residents driving toward Tripoli, said it was too dangerous to venture outside in the town. Militia men are hiding around the city and (pro-Gaddafi) green flags are everywhere."

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.

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