Bani Walid: Gaddafi loyalists fight on

A Libyan fighter loyal to the National Transitional Council (NTC) rides a donkey at an outpost in Wadi Dinar in the area along the frontline with the town of Bani Walid on September 11, 2011. Image copyright AFP
Image caption Anti-Gaddafi fighters have time on their hands outside Bani Walid

I'm writing this beside our car in a small patch of shade outside Bani Walid. Journalists are being halted at a checkpoint here and so a small caravan park of vehicles and satellite dishes has formed in this dusty brown, sweltering valley.

Occasionally there is a roar of a Nato jet in the cloudless sky, and half an hour ago three Grad missiles smashed into the hills about four kolometres (2.5 miles) away.

Apart from that, it has been far quieter than yesterday - a couple of bored fighters have even been attempting some acrobatic tricks on the back of a donkey.

As for the battle for the town - some are talking of a lull, others of a deadlock, and others of steady progress. It is a familiar scenario in what remains a profoundly chaotic, complicated, tribally sensitive rebellion.

This morning one well-placed official in the new interim government in Tripoli told me, off the record, that he was "despondent".

"Bani Walid may take weeks to fall now - we made a mistake trying to negotiate, and giving Gaddafi's men time to fortify the town," he said.

'Liberate itself'

But a little later I ran into the man who led those failed negotiations, Abdullah Kanshil, a few miles north of Bani Walid.

"It's quiet today," he declared, pointing out that the nearby field hospital had not received a single casualty since yesterday. He insisted that the town was beginning to "liberate itself, like Tripoli did", with local men starting to take up arms and set up roadblocks - leaving perhaps half the town in the hands of Gaddafi loyalists.

Since then we have met other local commanders who have contradicted both those assessments, saying their forces are stuck either one or five kilometres from the heart of the town, facing continued rocket and mortar fire from Gaddafi loyalist positions, but insisting that Bani Walid will fall within two or three days.

So - clear as mud then.

But the fact that Nato jets are, once again, attacking the town on Sunday suggests that Col Gaddafi's forces are still putting up serious resistance.

According to one theory, issues of local pride and tribal politics mean that the forces attacking the town are being led by fighters from Bani Walid itself - men who have far less experience of battle than many of the other units from towns like Misrata which are also taking part in the offensive. The crack troops, in other words, may be bringing up the rear.

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