BENGHAZI, Libya - Moammar Khadafy loyalists seized control of a Libyan mountain city in the most serious challenge to the central government since the strongman’s fall, underlining the increasing weakness of Libya’s Western-backed rulers as they try to unify the country under their authority.
The taking of Bani Walid, one of the last Khadafy strongholds captured by the new leadership late last year, was the first such organized operation by armed remnants of Khadafy’s regime. A simultaneous outbreak of shootings in the capital and Libya’s second largest city Benghazi raised authorities’ concerned that other networks of loyalists were active elsewhere.
The security woes add to the difficulties of the ruling National Transitional Council, which is struggling to establish its authority and show Libyans progress in stability and good government. Bani Walid’s fall comes after violent protests in Benghazi, where Libyans angry over lack of reform stormed the National Transitional Council headquarters and trashed offices.
In Bani Walid, hundreds of well-equipped and highly trained remnants of Khadafy’s forces battled for eight hours on Monday with the local pro-transitional council revolutionary brigade, known as the May 28 Brigade, said Mubarak al-Fatmani, the head of Bani Walid local council. The brigade was driven out and Khadafy loyalists then raised their old green flag over buildings in the western city.
Four revolutionary fighters were killed and 25 others were wounded in the fighting, Fatmani said.
There were no immediate signs that the uprising was part of some direct attempt to restore the family of Khadafy, who was swept out of power in August and then killed in the nearby city of Sirte in October. His sons, daughter, and wife have been killed, arrested, or have fled to neighboring countries.
Instead, the fighting seemed to reflect a rejection of transitional council control by a city that never deeply accepted its rule, highlighting the still unresolved tensions between those who benefited under Khadafy’s regime and those now in power. Those tensions are tightly wound up with tribal and regional rivalries around the country.
The May 28 Brigade had kept only a superficial control over the city, the head of Bani Walid’s military council, Abdullah al-Khazmi, acknowledged.
“The only link between Bani Walid and the revolution was May 28 - now it is gone and 99 percent of Bani Walid people are Khadafy loyalists,’’ he said.
He spoke on the eastern outskirts of Bani Walid, where hundreds of pro-transitional council reinforcements from Benghazi were deployed with convoys of cars mounted with machine guns, though there was no immediate move to retake the city.
The fighters who captured the city Monday night belong to Brigade 93, a militia newly created by Khadafy loyalists who reassembled after the fall of the regime, said Khazmi and Fatmani. The fighters, flush with cash and heavy weaponry including incendiary bombs, have been increasing in power in the city, they said.
Authorities in Benghazi, where the transitional council is centered, appeared concerned that the Bani Walid uprising could have sent a signal to other cells of Khadafy forces.
Five months since the Khadafy’s regime’s fall and three months since his death, the National Transitional Council has so far made little progress in unifying its armed forces. Instead it relies largely on multiple “revolutionary brigades,’’ militias made up of citizens-turned-fighters, usually all from a specific city or even neighborhood.
The main tribe in Bani Walid is a branch of the Warfala tribal confederation, which stretches around the country with around 1 million members. The Bani Walid branch was one of the most privileged under Khadafy, who gave them top positions.