One of the last Libyan towns to surrender to rebels who toppled Col. Muammar Gaddafi last year, and which had been at odds with the country’s new government ever since, was overrun on Wednesday morning by pro-government militiamen after nearly three weeks of fighting.
Militiamen in pickup trucks poured into the wrecked and smoke-filled center of the desert hilltop town of Bani Walid, home to one of the country’s biggest tribes, the Warfalla, amid cries of “Free Libya” and “Allah Akbar” in scenes reminiscent of the uprising against Col. Gaddafi.
They waved the post-Gaddafi tricolor flag of red, black, and green and claimed they had routed the late dictator’s diehard followers and saved the revolution. But they admitted many hardcore Bani Walid fighters had slipped away during the night.
Bani Walid’s leaders argue that Misrata was engaged in an exercise in collective punishment with their assault as punishment for the town having sided with Col. Gaddafi during the uprising.
On Saturday, the president of the country’s parliament appeared to egg on the militiamen from the towns of Misrata, Zliten, Homs and Tajoura by warning that Libya had not yet been completely liberated from the rule of Col. Gaddafi and he singled out Bani Walid, claiming that it was harboring large numbers of “anti-revolutionaries and mercenaries.”
Within hours of his broadcast remarks militiamen intensified their assault and started indiscriminately shelling the town, killing at least 130 civilians, including women and children, according to one of Bani Walid’s elders, 62-year-old Ali Mohamed Ali. The state news agency, LAN, put the death toll on both sides at only 22 with hundreds injured.
Speaking with The Daily Beast in the neighboring town of Tarhuna, Ali said he had escaped Bani Walid overnight “under fierce bombardment after my house had been destroyed.” At a checkpoint, militiamen seized his brother, a doctor. “About 60 civilians were killed on Tuesday alone and there are still people under the rubble,” he said. He claims that a majority of the town’s population of 70,000 had fled over the past few days. Families in Tarhuna and neighboring villages have taken in many of the refugees, who seem to want to avoid a camp set up by the government half an hour from Bani Walid.
During the fighting, pro-government militiamen turned back journalists seeking to enter the besieged town, claiming it was for their own safety. Militiamen also blocked humanitarian relief and International Red Cross workers eager to supply Bani Walid with medical supplies and food. The town ran out of basic medicines days ago as well as milk and gas. The hospital closed after being shelled. Earlier this week the government withheld its permission for a United Nations mission to enter the besieged town on the grounds that it could not guarantee safe passage.
Bani Walid was deserted of civilians yesterday, although many could well have been hiding indoors from pro-government militiamen, who hadn’t yet commenced a house-to-house search for men on their wanted list.
Gesturing to a brown door mat depicting Col. Gaddafi, which militiamen had discovered in a house, a young fighter from Misrata, 27-year-old Mustafa el-Ramarlli, said: “As you see they are still keeping Gaddafi pictures.” He added: “On their local radio station they said they would kick our asses. The young men here were Gaddafi guys but this morning we showed them and now it is all fine.”
Nearby, militiamen celebrated by letting off rounds from anti-aircraft guns, which were mounted on the back of pickup trucks. Others fired into buildings already wrecked either by NATO airstrikes last year or by the bombardment of recent days.
Some young fighters spray painted references to a historic falling out between Misrata and the Warfalla tribe during the Italian occupation of the early 20th century and erected a poster of Misrata’s then leader, Ramadan Al-Swehli, on a government building in the center of Bani Walid.
The already existent ill will between the two tribes increased last year when Bani Walid sided with Gaddafi during the uprising. Since then Misrata and Bani Walid have accused each other of dozens of kidnappings of young men who had ventured into each other’s territory. Misrata is believed to be holding 150 men, who have been captured since the uprising ended. When Bani Walid was overrun on Wednesday, militiamen freed a dozen Misratans being held hostage, according to one of their commanders.
The Misrata militiamen moved against Bani Walid this month after Omran Shaban, the rebel who found Gaddafi hiding in a drain in Sirte last year, died following two months of detention in the town. Libya’s congress ordered its defense and interior ministries to find those responsible for abducting Shaaban and suspected of torturing him; the leaders of Bani Walid were given a deadline to hand over the alleged culprits.
On October 13, tribal elders from eastern Libya mounted a reconciliation effort and in an all-day meeting with Bani Walid’s leaders a deal was reached. But the next day Misrata turned it down.
“The military act is now finished. We now are working to make the city stable and more secure,” Army Chief of Staff, Youssef al-Mangoush, told reporters on Wednesday. “That doesn’t mean that there isn’t some resistance here or there. Now the government is in charge.”
For how long remains the question. As dusk fell, the town’s conquerors made a hasty exit amid the din of gunshots and cheering soldiers. “You should get out of here,” shouted a fighter perched on the back of a truck. “The snipers will be back.”
Many militiamen headed back to their hometowns to celebrate Eid-ul-Adha, the second most important festival in the Muslim calendar, which celebrates the prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son when ordered to by God. “This year the biggest sacrifice has been Bani Walid,” says a civil society leader, who declined to be named for this article for fear of his safety. “The government chose violence over reconciliation. The buildings in the town can be repaired. The real damage will be in the form of continuing bad blood.”
Government spokesman Nasser al-Mana'a insisted the government had no choice but to attack and had used proportionate violence. “Bani Walid had become a center for fugitives from justice.”