By George Grant.
Tripoli, 24 October:
Forces from the national army together with allied brigades have taken control of Bani Walid, the last pro-Qaddafi stronghold in Libya.
The announcement was made today by Chief of Staff General Yusuf Mangoush, following reports that the army and allied brigades had succeeded in entering and holding the centre of the town early this morning.
Sporadic fighting was reported between the opposing forces today, but only in certain small pockets of the hilltop town.
“The army is controlling Bani Walid and I can announce that military operations have now concluded”, Mangoush said this afternoon. “But that does not mean we don’t have follow-up operations and some resistance here and there.”
Well over 25,000 civilians are said to have been displaced, with scores killed and wounded on both sides, in a conflict that first began on 2 October.
Mangoush failed to respond to allegations that he had lost control of his forces at several points over the course of the conflict, but said that reports of a breached 48-hour ceasefire declared last week to enable the evacuation of civilians were incorrect. “We didn’t announce it was a ceasefire”, he said. “We said it was the end of the main military operation.”
The general also defended the use of heavy weapons, including Grad rockets, in civilian areas, saying that the force deployed against Bani Walid was necessary and proportionate. “They [the armed forces] used the appropriate weapons to fight. When some fighters use certain weapons, we have to use the same weapons to stop the fight. It is a practical point.”
In the past few days, the military succeeded in taking control of the populated districts surrounding Bani Walid but had hitherto failed to achieve more than temporary raids into the centre.
Both sides have deployed light and heavy weapons against one another, resulting in large numbers of civilian as well as military casualties.
Inside Bani Walid, pro-government forces were seen firing heavy machine guns and RPGs at abandoned buildings today amidst cries of “God is Great!” as they celebrated the liberation of the town.
Government spokesman Nasser Al-Manaa has also announced that more than 100 wanted persons from Bani Walid, including former members of Khamis Qaddafi’s 32nd brigade, had been captured and several hostages freed.
Al-Manaa also took the opportunity to apologise for apparently false reports from both the government and the National Congress regarding the killing of Khamis and the capture of former regime spokesman Ibrahim Moussa last week.
“We apologise for mistakes made regarding declarations about the capture of different personalities”, Manaa said. “It was not our intention to mislead people or to hide something”.
Manaa also announced the establishment of three committees by the government to deal with security inside Bani Walid, the resumption of services and the return of refugees.
Numerous homes are known to have been destroyed over the course of the conflict, and the town has been without regular essential services such as fuel, electricity and water for several weeks.