BANI WALID, Libya — Violence and confusion after clashes in Bani Walid this week were a troubling reminder of the lingering dangers of shifting loyalties and rampant distrust that remains between many Libyan cities.
After journalists reported Monday that soldiers loyal to slain Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had retaken Bani Walid, militia groups in Tripoli, Misrata and the Nafusa Mountains were put on high alert, setting up checkpoints and sending reinforcements to secure the routes in and out of the area.
As images of the fighting played on television screens across the country, many feared the beginning of a new civil war and an outbreak of new violence between rebels and the former regime. A local security chief in Bani Walid said thousands of former Gaddafi troops had regrouped.
But Ian Martin, a UN diplomat, and Libyan officials announced Wednesday that the reports had been false and the dispute had been a local issue. By Thursday, the streets of Bani Walid were calm. Rebel flags dotted the skyline and there was no military presence, not even a weapon, in sight. Residents denied that the recent clash was anything more than a local dispute that lasted several hours.
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“Always there are fights in Tripoli and other cities, but the media calls these 'clashes between rebel groups,'” said local resident Nasa Gheeton as he pointed out several buildings bombed months before by NATO. “When there is fighting here they all say it’s ‘Gaddafi forces.’ Why?”
Gheeton dismissed claims of strong support for the former regime within the town, but admitted things are difficult. Prices have risen. Jobs have become scarce and as one of the last remaining Gaddafi strongholds, the city still bares heavy scars from the rebel invasion from three months ago.
The sign above the entrance to the local police station, riddled with bullet holes, was unreadable and a tattered rebel flag hung above the station’s marred façade. Opposite, the entrance to another government building gaped open from bomb blasts.
Sitting at his desk, giving hurried answers between an onslaught of phone calls, Bani Walid’s head of security, Rajeb Mohammed Masoud, repeated his claim that the clash had been a planned attack by Gaddafi loyalists, a group that he said numbered in the thousands. The armed group has been a constant threat to security since rebel forces gained control of the city, he said.
“Until now we have found no solution, because we do not have enough weapons or police officers to arrest them,” he said, adding that no one really knows just how many weapons they have with them or how much more heavy artillery they have hidden in the surrounding desert mountains.
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Masoud said on Monday that the group attacked the base of one of the two local rebel units, stealing weapons and "taking everything” before retreating back to their base.
“If no force comes from outside to control them, they will attack again and they will try to kill us,” he said.
A local resident and police chief of 32 years, Masoud said his family backed the revolution from the beginning. He said that his son was among the first killed by Gaddafi forces in the city in May.
He warned two former rebel fighters present at the interview that the city was not safe for them, because 90 percent of its residents still supported Gaddafi and held deep resentment toward the invading rebel forces.
The drive from Misrata had indeed been tense. The deserted road wound forward through the empty plains as desert sands rolled eerily across the bitumen. Occasionally, a lone car would pass by, but the messages were mixed.
A truck driver preparing his lunch along the side of the road warned that it was not safe for vehicles from Misrata, a city known as a bastion of anti-Gaddafi sentiment. Gaddafi forces still controlled Bani Walid, he said, and the car was an obvious target. Further on, a group of four rebel fighters reported that Misrata forces held the road ahead, but they had decided to turn back as Gaddafi forces may attack at any time.
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Closer to the city, however, a family from Bani Walid said it was safe and the minor clash a few days ago had been resolved.
Along the 120-kilometer route between the two cities, the only military presence was a small checkpoint manned by rebel fighters from the nearby city of Zlitan. In Bani Walid, the rumors of hostility and regrouping Gaddafi forces were hard to believe, but there was still apprehension for the Misratan visitors.
“The city is peaceful,” said Dr. Taha Agela as he walked through the quiet halls of Bani Walid Hospital. “We don’t even have checkpoints here. Did you see any weapons or armed cars in the streets? Do you hear gunfire or explosions like you do in Tripoli or Misrata? This is a safe city because Bani Walid is one family.”
Agela said the reports of clashes in the city had been exaggerated.
“On Monday afternoon we were crowded with cases,” he said. “But the fighting lasted hours, not days. The reports of Gaddafi troops in the city were rumors. How can these reporters sit in Tripoli and tell people what is happening in Bani Walid without coming to check their facts?”
Agela said about six were killed and 10 with serious injuries were transferred to Tripoli. Other patients were dressed for their wounds and sent home.
The only serious case that remained was 15-year-old Fara, who suffered from multiple shrapnel wounds to her legs, back and arms. As her mother sat at her side, appearing worried but nonetheless cheerful, Fara described what happened.
“War for us is normal. We know when we hear the fighting to go inside,” she said as she lay on her hospital bed, with her right side completely bandaged. She explained that they had heard distant fighting and she had taken shelter in the house with her young brother, who was also injured in the blast.
“I felt something hot shoot into my limbs. When I woke up my brother was shaking me. Dust was everywhere,” she said.
The family, who had no idea where the bomb had come from or who had fired it, seemed certain the situation in the city was now under control.
The National Transitional Council’s minister of defense made a visit to the city on Wednesday to meet tribal elders and local leaders. Mixed reports as to what was discussed emerged, sparking more rumors that Libya’s new government was losing control of the city.
Agela, like most Bani Walid residents, denied there was any connection between the city’s resistance to Libyan authorities and a loyalty to the former regime.
“Even at war, the sons of Bani Walid fought for Bani Walid, not Gaddafi,” he said. “We just wanted to keep the rebel forces away from our town. We just want to be left alone.”