Deadly clashes between armed groups rocked Bani Walid Friday, a final bastion of support of slain Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, as a siege of the hilltop town was partially lifted, residents said.
Fighters from Bani Walid — a town still seen by many Libyans as never truly “liberated” in last year’s anti-Gaddafi revolt — clashed with militiamen from the nearby city of Misrata who have encircled it in their search for killers of a former rebel credited with capturing the slain dictator last year.
A Bani Walid militia commander gave no specific reason for Friday’s clashes but said the fighting left one fighter killed. A local town official put the toll as high as 10.
Bani Walid has been tense for weeks with threat of a direct assault on the town looming large in the wake of the death of Omar Ben Shaaban, 22, a former rebel from Misrata who was credited with capturing Gaddafi. Shaaban was shot, kidnapped and allegedly tortured in the town.
The death of Shaaban stoked tensions between Misrata and Bani Walid, neighbouring but historically rival cities which found themselves on opposite sides of the 2011 conflict that ousted gaddafi.
Gaddafi was killed in a battle in his hometown Sirte on October 20, 2011.
Libya’s national assembly on September 25 ordered the ministries of defence and interior to “use force if necessary” in finding the killers of Shaaban.
Army forces backed by militias made up of former rebels now have a stranglehold on Bani Walid.
“One person was killed and two wounded,” said Salem al-Waer, leader of the largest armed group in Bani Walid, a town which former rebels from Misrata and other Libyan cities see as a shelter for Gaddafi loyalists.
Waer said Friday’s clashes started in the early morning and centred in the valley of Mardum, 10 kilometres (6.5 miles) east of Bani Walid which was one of the last towns to fall to anti-Gaddafi rebels last year.
He said that despite the clashes the siege was partially lifted Friday, with representatives of the International Committee for the Red Cross being allowed to enter the town for the first time since government forces and armed groups from Misrata encircled it.
“They toured the towns and hospitals,” he said.
ICRC spokeswoman Sooad Messudi confirmed the visit saying we “went to deliver medical aid to the hospital of Bani Walid and a polyclinic” but gave no comment on casualties.
Nurse Mohammed Ali said that heavy shelling on residential areas, particularly in the area of Al-Zaara, killed five people, including three children, whom he named.
Abdelhamid al-Sanduli, head of the town’s political and media committee, gave a higher figure, saying that “heavy shelling killed 10 people.”
These numbers could not be independently confirmed. Similar clashes on October 1 in Mardum killed one person.
Amnesty International warned last week that Libyan efforts to arrest the killers of Shaaban and retrieve other hostages in the city were turning into a siege of Bani Walid.