By Umar Khan.
Tripoli, 27 October:
The operation to bring Bani Walid under the control of the government has generated serious controversy over the use of force. It has also attracted criticism from those who blame the government for putting violence ahead of reconciliation.
The killing of civilians cannot be justified, but neither can the efforts of a town to stop the country from moving forward. Bani Walid, a place which the former regime chose alongside Sirte to stage the final battle, has been doing just this for the past year by harbouring Qaddafi-era criminals.
Those wanted for questioning about crimes committed under Qaddafi range from the security officials of the old regime to members of Khamis Qaddafi’s infamous 32 Brigade. Guards involved in the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre and others suspected of committing crimes during the eight-month revolution are also wanted.
The perception that militias from the city of Misrata attacked Bani Walid to avenge the killing of Misratan leader Ramadan Al-Swehli by Bani Walid’s Abd El-Nabi in 1920 has no substance. Last year, militias from Misrata refused to join the forces trying to liberate the town of Bani Walid for the first time, as they thought it would cause complication and controversy. They decided to sit-out one of the most important battles for the sake of the revolution.
Residents of Bani Walid who supported the revolution have been targeted over the last year. Night-time gunfire was aimed at houses sporting the tri-colour flag and students wearing tri-colour accessories symbolizing the Libyan flag were targeted in schools and colleges.
Those wanted by the state for a range of crimes under the former regime found asylum inside Bani Walid. These attitudes stopped people there from moving on like most cities, especially in the neighbouring city of Tarhouna.
Reconciliation, a key element to making the revolution a success, needs all parties to be willing to move on. Compromises can only be made and agreements reached when the desire to progress and the vision of a peaceful future is envisioned by both sides. Unfortunately, the old regime elements in Bani Walid were not only trapped in the past but were also holding back the whole country from making progress in the next phase of the revolution: reconciliation.
Within a few weeks of the announcement of liberation on 23 October 2011, scores were killed and many injured on two separate occasions when brigades were ambushed in Bani Walid. Those responsible for the attack were never handed over. Only weeks later the ‘28 May Brigade’ of Bani Walid, the only brigade of the town that participated in the revolution, was attacked and forced to leave.
The attack was carried out by local people under the excuse of freeing a man, Mohammed Shlaebta, despite knowing that he was never in the headquarters. Brigade-members had to leave the city and heavy weaponry was stolen from the base and never returned.
The defence minister Osama Juweili and the interim deputy prime minister Mustafa Abushagur approached the issue in different ways, trying to reach a resolution through dialogue. Members of the National Transitional Council (NTC) were also involved in negotiations to carve out an agreement that would see the town handing over all parties wanted for questioning after the elections. Assurances were given that those on the wanted list would be handed over.
The current head of the GNC, Mohammed Yusef Magarief, was confident in the lead-up to the 7 July elections that Bani Walid would honour this agreement. He believed that the criminals would be handed over once the GNC started working, ending the months’ long stand-off between the town and the state. Despite all the assurances, this never happened.
The NTC and the interim government never gave the go-ahead to revolutionaries who were more than willing to go and clear the area of heavy weapons. Several times revolutionary fighters requested permission to go into Bani Walid and ‘sweep’ the area, but officials put their faith in dialogue, hoping the people of Bani Walid would come to terms with the revolution.
These official efforts, however, were met with actions such as the kidnapping of journalists covering the elections and security officials manning the checkpoints.
The kidnapping and torture of Omran Shabaan by the militias of Bani Walid, and his death soon after release, gave the government enough leverage to finally act against the city and capture Qaddafi-era criminals harboured there.
The officials and elders from different cities were wrong to think that Bani Walid would respond to dialogue and reason and surrender those they harbouring. They not only resisted calls to hand over criminals to the state. They also hesitated in responding to calls from the national army and revolutionary brigades, under the ministry of defence, to maintain presence inside the town.
The revolutionaries refused to listen to the demands of Bani Walid this time. Their experiences of broken talks over the last 12 months meant they wanted concrete actions.
The operation formally started with the ruling of the GNC, the elected congress, that armed forces should surround the city. The security agencies had been preparing for this for months, and in the lead-up to the assault, the ‘28 May Brigade’ forced to leave the town earlier this year successfully conducted reconnaissance missions for 6-8 weeks.
The reports of random shelling by the army can only be confirmed in the coming days but foreign doctors working in the Bani Walid hospital have already confirmed that local militias were staging attacks from the hospital compound. Reports of retaliatory fire around the hospital by the army were then propagated through social media. Such tactics to distort facts and use fabricated images cost them the sympathy of the rest of the country.
The loss of life on either side is regrettable but action by the state to ensure the security and stability of the whole country is not a new thing. It would be unfair to view the operation out of context and ignore all the officials’ earlier attempts at making peace with Bani Walid.