Rebels in Libya poised to assault Gadhafi stronghold

Sunday, September 4, 2011

TARHOUNA, Libya -- Rebel fighters were poised Saturday to assault one of the last strongholds of loyalist fighters in Libya, giving residents of Bani Walid one final night to choose between surrender and an all-out attack.

Thousands of fighters were moving toward the town from three sides, according to a senior rebel official from the area, Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, who is also involved in the surrender talks. Some fighters had pushed to within six miles of the town, but stopped to avoid being accidentally targeted in NATO airstrikes.

"If they don't raise the rebel flag tomorrow, we will enter with force," said Abdel-Razak al-Nathori, a rebel who commands one of the brigades advancing on the town.

The Libyan regime crumbled after rebels seized Tripoli, the capital, in a weeklong August battle that came six months after the civil war began in February. Since Tripoli's fall, rebel fighters have been advancing toward a number of key loyalist targets, including Bani Walid, Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte and the southern loyalist stronghold of Sabha.

Relatives of Gadhafi and close associates are still believed to be in Bani Walid, including a Gadhafi cousin, Ahmed Ibrahim, said Abdel-Baset Naama, a rebel official. At least two of the former dictator's sons have recently been in the town, rebels say, and some believe Gadhafi himself may be hiding in Bani Walid -- a bastion of Gadhafi support because it had benefited in recent years from the regime's patronage system.

"The people of Bani Walid want the rebels, but associates of Gadhafi are still inside," Naama said.

Abdel-Aziz said he had met a delegation of Bani Walid tribal elders Saturday, and they told him that they were not willing to give up.

"We have given the people of Bani Walid many chances," he said.

Al-Nathori said one of Gadhafi's sons, Muatassim, was in Bani Walid on Saturday, apparently to persuade tribal leaders to remain loyal to the crumbling regime. Another Gadhafi son, Seif al-Islam, was also there at some point but fled, said al-Nathori, speaking in the town of Tarhouna, about halfway between Tripoli and Bani Walid.

Still, the rebels say they have been negotiating with tribal elders in the town, trying to get them to surrender.

The town, some 90 miles southeast of Tripoli, is a base of the 1-million-strong Warfala tribe, one-sixth of Libya's population. In an audio message Thursday, Gadhafi said the Warfala would be among the tribes that would defend him to the death.

But Bani Walid also has a history of opposition to Gadhafi. Western diplomats in Libya and opposition leaders abroad reported in 1993 that the air force had put down an uprising by army units in Misrata and Bani Walid. They said many officers were executed and arrested.

In other developments Saturday, the rebels' deputy prime minister, Ali Tarhouni, said production at two major oil fields would resume Sept. 12 or 13. Libya's economic future could hinge on the performance of its lucrative oil and gas sectors, whose production ground to a halt during the insurgency against Gadhafi.

Foreign oil companies with interests in Libya have already put out feelers with rebel officials on resuming work.

At least five foreign oil and gas companies are back in Libya to work on resuscitating production, a Libyan official said Friday. Advance teams are trying to assess damage and restart facilities, said Aref Ali Nayed, a member of the rebel-led government's so-called stabilization team.

In the capital, residents tried to return to their prewar routines on Saturday, the first full work day since the fall of the regime, the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and a three-day holiday that ended Friday.

In the Tripoli suburb of Tajoura, a coffee shop was crowded with men picking up takeout espresso and cappuccino on the way to work. Nearby, a policeman in a light blue shirt directed increasingly congested traffic, another sign of a return to normalcy.

But the capital is still suffering from water shortages as a result of attacks by Gadhafi loyalists on a remote desert pumping station. Long lines formed at bakeries and gas stations, but the price of fuel is slowly dropping as more supplies arrive.

AP Television News reporter Ahmed Bahaddou contributed to this report from outside Bani Walid.

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