Sunday, September 04, 2011

Libya Under Siege: Bani Walid is the Scene of an Escalating Humanitarian Crisis

Bani Walid: an escalating humanitarian crisis

Muammar Gaddafi's stronghold said to be a scene of growing desperation with no power or water and food running low

David Smith in Weshtata, Libya, Sunday 4 September 2011 18.01 BST

Bani Walid is a scene of growing desperation according to Libyan rebels.

Libyan rebels say 25 doctors are seeking entry into one of Muammar Gaddafi's besieged strongholds in a bid to avert an escalating humanitarian crisis.

The town of Bani Walid is said to be a scene of growing desperation with no power or water for a week, food running low and Gaddafi loyalists firing in the streets.

Rebels have surrounded the town, one of the last in Libya that remains in the deposed leader's grip. Despite ongoing clashes they were continuing last ditch efforts to negotiate a peaceful surrender. Rebels claimed their first priority is now bringing emergency relief to the population.

At a desert outpost around 60km away, Abusif Ghnyah, a rebel spokesman who comes from Bani Walid, said: "There is no fruit or vegetables and a shortage of water. People are relying on food stored in their house. The city has been without electricity for a week and the houses rely on electricity, even for water. There is nothing at the hospital."

Two of his colleagues had gone to Bani Walid to negotiate passage for 25 doctors, Ghnyah said. "We are not fighters. We want to supply food, medicine and so on. We are preparing for humanitarian intervention. But unless it is 100% safe, we will not go in."

The talks appeared to have broken down because rebels want the doctors and ambulances to go in with an armed convoy. Pro-Gaddafi elements in Bani Walid, 140km southeast of Tripoli, have found this unacceptable.

Ghnyah said 120 people gathered in Bani Walid last week and agreed a negotiated surrender, only for the meeting to be disrupted by Gaddafi loyalists shouting dissent.

Ghnyah claimed that around 20 loyalist gunmen are causing mayhem in the town, "most likely" on the instructions of Gaddafi himself.

"We have heard some of the Gaddafi gangs controlling Bani Walid are making trouble for the people. They are firing into the air and threatening people. They are giving guns to children. They are destroying the city."

On Saturday the rebels claimed that Bani Walid's radio station was under their control and flags had been raised in defiance.

Ghnyah added: "The whole population of Bani Walid is with us but they are frightened for their lives. Their lives are not safe if they say they are with the 17th of February [the date of the counter-revolution began]. I heard yesterday the streets are empty of people except these gangs."

Many of the rebel fighters moving up to 10km west of Bani Walid in pickup trucks with mounted artillery guns hail from the town and belong to its dominant tribe, the Warfala. They say they are unwilling to take it by force and risk civilian casualties unless entirely necessary. Various deadlines for surrender have come and gone.

Ghnyah added: "We have told them they are our brothers, our elders, and we are not going there for bloodshed. We are patient because we want to save the lives of people. We don't want to fire one shot, we don't want to hurt the people."

But asked how just 20 Gaddafi sympathisers could be holding a town of 60,000 people hostage, Ghnyah replied: "That's a good question."

Rebel officials have given conflicting statements about the situation in Bani Walid and other loyalist areas. Dao Salhin Eljadek, a colonel in the Tripoli Military Council, contradicted earlier reports by suggesting that Gaddafi's sons, Saif and Saadi, are still in Bani Walid.

"Saif is in Bani Walid and has given about 80 FN guns to snipers and mercenaries," he said. "Saif is causing problems and is causing us to fight each other. The people of Bani Walid should abandon him."

He added: "I know Saadi is in Bani Walid and negotiating a surrender. If they give up, they will be given a fair trial. Everyone who was working with the Gaddafi regime, as soon as surrendering, will be treated humanely and kept safe under our control until going to court."

Asked to estimate the strength of Gaddafi's forces, Eljadek commented: "Numbers don't matter. We'll do our best for the country."

Meanwhile Nato reported bombing an ammunition storage facility near Bani Walid. It also bombed a military barracks, a police camp and several other targets near Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte on Saturday night, as well as targets near Hun, a possible staging ground in the desert halfway between Sirte and Sabha.

National Transitional Council officials announced plans to bring their heavily-armed fighters under control and try to integrate thousands of them into the police force and find jobs for others.

Interim interior minister Ahmad Darat said: "We only need the revolutionaries for the first month. We have a plan we will announce today to include 3,000 of the revolutionaries in the interior ministry who will be trained and will work in national security.

"The rest of them work in business or are builders etc - they don't want to be in the police. They will give up their weapons. It's just a matter of time and organisation."

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