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Libya rebels reportedly enter a stronghold of pro-Kadafi forces

Rebels advanced Friday into Bani Walid, one of the final strongholds in Libya of fallen strongman Moammar Kadafi’s rule, according to reports from the area.

Fighters who had been preparing an assault for weeks moved into the pro-Kadafi bastion about 90 miles southeast of Tripoli from the north and east, said Abdullah Kanshil, a representative of Libya’s transitional ruling council, who spoke to journalists outside the town.

The invading fighters met sniper fire, Kanshil said, and street fighting was reported.

Kanshil told the pan-Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera that rebels hoped to take the town without extensive fighting. There was no immediate word on casualties.

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A spokesman for the transitional government in Tripoli, the capital, confirmed that “an engagement” was underway at Bani Walid, but had no further details.

Rebels have been trying to negotiate a surrender of the town. But in recent days, Kadafi loyalists reportedly fired barrages of Grad rockets at rebel positions outside Bani Walid, enraging the fighters.

Kadafi and his family disappeared as Tripoli fell to the rebels last month. Several family members have arrived in Algeria, Libya’s neighbor to the west, but the whereabouts of Kadafi and several of his more powerful sons are not known. Some unconfirmed reports have placed Kadafi or his sons in Bani Walid.

The town has remained one of three Libyan municipalities still loyal to the deposed strongman. The others are the coastal city of Surt, which is the ex-leader’s hometown, and the southern desert city of Sabha.

The assault on Bani Walid could signal the onset of the culminating phase in a six-month civil war that, according to Libya’s interim rulers, has killed an estimated 30,000 people.

The news from Bani Walid came as thousands of people gathered in central Tripoli to celebrate the uprising that overthrew Kadafi after more than 40 years in power. Revelers chanted pro-rebel slogans, motorists honked their horns, and fighters squeezed off celebratory rounds into the air.

As rebel troops awaited orders to storm Bani Walid, NATO warplanes had bombed targets in and around the town as well as other loyalist holdouts. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization says it is protecting civilians under a United Nations mandate, but Kadafi’s allies accused the alliance of taking on the role of the rebels’ air force.

It was not clear whether a majority of its residents supported Kadafi or pro-Kadafi forces had imposed their will on the town. Many civilians have fled Bani Walid, which once had a population of about 100,000. The besieged town was reportedly suffering from shortages of food, water and gasoline.

The rebel governing council had given Kadafi loyalists until Saturday to lay down their arms or face attack. Rebel officials said they wished to avoid bloodshed.

But Libya’s transitional leaders were impatient with the slow pace of talks aimed at securing the surrender of the remaining pro-Kadafi enclaves. Some accused Kadafi supporters of stalling to gain time to regroup, or to allow Kadafi, his family and high-ranking associates to flee the country.

Some high-level Kadafi officials reportedly escaped Libya last week in a convoy that traversed the Sahara and crossed into the neighboring nation of Niger.

Rebel leaders say they will not declare Libya liberated until all major pockets of pro-Kadafi resistance have been eliminated and Kadafi himself has been captured or killed.

Kadafi, who says that he is still in Libya, has urged his followers via audio messages to launch a guerrilla war against the nation’s new leaders. But rebel commanders vow that their forces will hunt Kadafi down.

“The battle of liberation is not finished yet,” top rebel leader Mahmoud Jibril said Thursday in his first address from the capital.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com


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