Tuesday, October 30, 2012

US-backed Militias Destroyed Bani Walid

October 30, 2012 9:37 pm

Libya army has ‘no control’ in Bani Walid

By Borzou Daragahi in Cairo
Financial Times

Libya’s outgoing defence minister admitted that the country’s official army had little role in the ongoing military stranglehold on the city of Bani Walid, a perceived bastion of support for the deposed regime of Col Muammer Gaddafi.

Osama al-Juweli described a continuing siege on the city despite the declared end of combat operations.

He alleged in comments on Tuesday that unspecified gunmen had established checkpoints on streets and city entrances and barred tens of thousands of displaced people from returning to Bani Walid. The city was subject to a weeks-long siege and destructive full-scale military assault vaguely described as an attempt to ferret out Gaddafi loyalists.

“The [army] chief of staff has no control over the town and therefore armed men are able to prevent families from coming back,” he told journalists in the capital, according to Agence France-Presse.

The statement constituted a startling admission of the government’s weakness in the face of well-armed, politically connected and mostly Islamist militias.

It also flatly contradicted public statements by other top officials, including Chief of Staff Gen Yousef Mangoush who last week insisted that the official army was in charge of Bani Walid, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Premier-designate Ali Zidane proposed a 32-member Cabinet on Tuesday, excluding Mr Juweli. Its approval was delayed after protesters stormed the national assembly on Tuesday, forcing the cancellation of a vote on a coalition government.

Mr Juweli, who has been relatively silent over the Bani Walid operation, hails from the mountaintop town of Zintan, which has strong historical ties to Bani Walid, heartland of Libya’s largest tribe, the Wurfalla.

The offensive against Bani Walid was led by the Libya Shield, a newly created branch of the armed forces made up former militias that fought against Gaddafi in last year’s Nato-backed war. Many worry that Libya Shield and a similar new branch of the Ministry of Interior are coalescing as ideologically motivated shadow armies that could threaten oil-rich Libya’s future stability and path toward democracy.

Mr Juweli said that he – and regular army troops that accompanied him – had been barred from entering the town on Sunday by Libya Shield gunmen.

Aid workers estimate that the fighting has displaced 40,000 of Bani Walid’s 100,000 or so residents, many of whom were unable to return home because of the militia presence. “The town is completely empty except for a small number of people who are living in tragic conditions; there is no activity,” Mr Juweli was quoted as saying. “The impact of shelling is visible everywhere.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross on Friday described a “difficult” humanitarian situation for those still inside Bani Walid and the thousands who have escaped days of shelling and tank fire to nearby cities and the capital, Tripoli.

According to Libya’s official news agency, at least 22 people had been killed in the fighting, sparked by the death of a fighter from Misurata at the alleged hands of Bani Walid captors. Human Rights Watch reported last week that at least seven of those killed were innocent bystanders.

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