SADADA, Libya (Reuters) – A militia commander whose troops were driven out of the Libyan tribal stronghold of Bani Walid this week said on Friday that his forces were massing to recapture the town but were holding back at the government’s request.
A bullet-riddled barracks is seen after an attack by armed Gaddafi loyalists at the headquarters of the May 28 Brigade in Bani Walid, a town about 200 km (120 miles) from Tripoli, in this still image taken from video January 24, 2012. A bullet-scarred barracks, scorched and abandoned like the ageing tanks guarding its shattered gateway, was all that remained on Tuesday of what passed for the Libyan government’s grip on Bani Walid. Credit: Reuters/via Reuters TV
“It is our right to reenter Bani Walid and nobody can prevent us,” Imbarak al-Futmani said in an interview with Reuters at his desert camp near Sadada, 30 miles east of Bani Walid.
Futmani’s troops were pushed out by angry townsmen who he accuses of being the remnants of loyalists of Muammar Gaddafi, the former dictator who was overthrown then captured and killed in October.
Eight hundred of his men were now massed along the eastern flank of the town awaiting his orders to enter by force, said the elderly warrior, who was dressed in an ornate black and gold waistcoast, a skullcap and a white blanket over his shoulder.
Bani Walid, 90 miles south of Tripoli, was one of the last towns to surrender to the anti-Gaddafi rebellion last year.
Hundreds of fighters loyal to the interim government have surrounded the isolated town after hearing word that a pro-Gaddafi uprising had broken out.
Futmani said he faced a couple of hundred “criminals” nostalgic for Gaddafi’s time in power, rather than large battalions of organized loyalists.
“We have all the revolutionary fighters with us and we can take Bani Walid in a matter of hours.”
“If they don’t hand themselves in, they will face what they cannot imagine,” he added, his eyes hidden by thick-rimmed, amber Ray-Ban sunglasses.
GADDAFI SUPPORT ALLEGATIONS
On Monday, armed residents surrounded Futmani’s brigade, who named themselves the “28th of May,” after the date last year when Gaddafi loyalists executed a number of pro-democracy protesters in Bani Walid.
After a battle in which Futmani lost six fighters, his men fled the barracks in the dark of the night.
“Once the Gaddafis broke through the gate and entered the barracks, all they cared about was stealing our tanks. We just walked right out,” said one of Futmani’s men.
Echoing complaints by residents that the 28th of May Brigade had been harassing people and abusing prisoners, the town elders said they were dismissing the government-backed local council on which Futmani sits and appointing their own local government.
They said they were not Gaddafi supporters but just tired of the militia pushing its weight around their town.
Futmani says the elders profited from Gaddafi and were trying to reclaim their town from its rightful rulers, the western-backed National Transitional Council (NTC) government.
WAITING ON THE PRIME MINISTER
With hundreds of fighters waiting at the gates of Bani Walid, drinking tea and oiling their weapons in the cold desert, why have they have not pushed forward?
Sitting in his base, a former Gaddafi holiday mansion on the top of a rocky hill, Futmani said the prime minister had asked him to hold off to allow civilians to leave the town and, hopefully, for the assailants to surrender.
“The prime minister called me and asked me not to move and I accepted,” he said.
“(Prime minister Abdel Rahim) El Keib promised that the government would use force to maintain security, if necessary.”
Troops from the nascent National Army, composed of revolutionary fighters who have signed up to the government force, had joined the militias around Bani Walid.
The NTC has been unable to fully establish control over armed revolutionary groups in Libya and has only incorporated a few brigades into a national security force. All of the militias claim loyalty to the government but most are still unwilling to disarm. Instead, they adopt a wait-and-see approach to who comes to power, and if they like them.
Futmani’s men cruise around the base in dirty pick-up trucks with machineguns mounted on the back.
He is skeptical of any peaceful solution and saw more violence ahead.
“These pro-Gaddafis, they see us a rats, like Gaddafi did,” he said. “They are murderers and criminals, they will never integrate into the new Libya because they know they will face justice now.”
By Oliver Holmes and Taha Zargoun, Reuters