By George Grant.
Ground forces have begun a full-scale assault against Bani Walid in a major escalation of clashes that began on Tuesday.
The attack marks the apparent termination of efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, with further casualties on both sides being reported throughout today, Thursday.
“We have started to enter Bani Walid and we are not far away from the centre of the town”, said army spokesman Mohammed El-Gandus. “If we win this fight, Libya will finally be free.”
Units from the national army were dispatched by General Yusuf Mangoush earlier today, with the intention of entering Bani Walid peacefully following an agreement to that effect brokered by a government delegation with local leaders on Saturday.
It is understood that the force was ordered to halt shortly after its departure, however, with brigades surrounding Bani Walid having resolved to enter instead by force.
“They were given the order to stay where they were”, said Mohammed Bashir, president of the government-aligned Bani Walid local council in Tripoli. “Mangoush ordered them to stop”.
The reasons behind that decision remain unclear, as does the extent to which the army chief of staff is actually in control of events on the ground.
National Congress President Mohamed Magarief has not provided any comment on his position regarding today’s developments and did not respond to calls from the Libya Herald this evening. It is understood that he will make a statement on the situation tomorrow morning.
A spokesman for Misrata’s general hospital told this paper that four people had been killed in fighting yesterday, and 41 wounded.
Today, the Libya Herald witnessed an army helicopter bringing a further three casualties to the town, one of them dead having been shot in the head by a sniper.
A member of the flight crew, who returned to the front line shortly after to pick up a fourth casualty, said they had been wounded in fighting close to the centre of Bani Walid.
The deputy director of Bani Walid general hospital, Abdullah Al-Mansuri, has said that seven people from the hill-town had been killed yesterday and 75 wounded. The hospital could not be reached this evening to confirm how many more casualties had been received today.
Speaking from the Kilometre 60 checkpoint to the east of Bani Walid, Mohammed El-Gandus said that around 2,000 forces were involved in the assault and that Bani Walid airport was already under their control.
This claim has been contradicted by residents inside the town, however, who say that they successfully repulsed attacks launched against them.
“We are still in control of the airport and they have not entered the town”, said Ibrahmi Warfalli, a lawyer inside Bani Walid.
Warfalli also said that several dozen Misratan fighters were killed today after they were lured into a trap, but this has not been independently verified.
El-Gandus said that the attacking forces were coming from two fronts to the east of Bani Walid, along the roads from Mordum and As Saddadah.
“The people from Bani Walid are fighting very well”, he said, “because they know they are going to die. This is the last fight between the people supporting Qaddafi and the people supporting the revolution”.
The army spokesman said he could not put a date on when the attacking forces would succeed in taking control of the town.
“Maybe it will take some days. Maybe something unexpected will happen. It will take time if the people supporting Bani Walid use civilians as a shield. We do not want to kill civilians”.
The stated objective of the assault is to enforce Resolution No. 7, passed by the National Congress on 25 September. The resolution came on the same day as the death of Omran Shaban, the Misratan revolutionary credited with first discovering Muammar Qaddafi in a drainpipe in Sirte on 20 October last year.
The Congress initially gave Bani Walid ten days to handover those accused of involvement in Shaban’s death along with several others wanted in association with crimes allegedly committed under the former regime.
Shaban was captured in Bani Walid on 12 July together with a colleague, having been dispatched there in the wake of the abduction of two prominent Misratan journalists four days earlier.
He was shot in the spine after his vehicle approached a checkpoint without stopping, and allegedly tortured whilst inside Bani Walid before his release on 13 September.
Leaders in Bani Walid have protested that the matter is fundamentally a judicial, not a military one, and that Resolution No. 7 is unconstitutional. To date, however, it is not believed that any investigation into the Shaban incident has begun.