Libyan government forces engaged in heavy fighting against militias in the town of Beni Walid yesterday after starting an assault the day before, army spokesman Mohammed El Gandus said.
“We started to enter Beni Walid” and have control of the airport, El Gandus said. “There is a big battle.”
The clash follows an army blockade that started Sept. 25 after the government accused Beni Walid militants of causing the death of a militiaman from Misrata credited with capturing former dictator Muammar Qaddafi in Sirte during last year’s Arab Spring revolution.
The army intends to capture the town, saying it was controlled by militants loyal to Qaddafi, El Gandus said. He added that the town is home to many former top officials of the Qaddafi administration who fled there, fearing arrest and execution if they surrendered.
“They are still supporting Qaddafi,” El Gandus said at a press conference at Kilometer 60, a traffic junction south of the coastal city of Misrata which forms the outer perimeter of the army cordon around Beni Walid. “We have a lot of names. We are going to catch them soon,” he said.
Misrata’s hospital received five dead and 44 wounded soldiers after two days of fighting, a hospital spokesman who declined to be identified said in an interview. Many were flown to the city by helicopter from Beni Walid, which is 90 miles southeast of Tripoli.
The army said yesterday it took control of Beni Walid, the airport and outlying suburbs, leaving the defending force surrounded in the town center. The statement was contradicted by Ibrahim Warfali, a Beni Walid lawyer, who said in a telephone interview from inside the town that the defenders remain in full control.
“They don’t control the town,” Warfali said. “We still have the airport. The mood is confident.”
Beni Walid was one of the last pro-Qaddafi redoubts to fall to rebel forces in last year’s rebellion. Several army tanks and pick-up trucks with anti-aircraft guns could be seen from Kilometer 60 driving east in a convoy toward Beni Walid after the first day of the assault. In Misrata, an army helicopter that landed close to the hospital carried a dead soldier and two wounded men, according to a volunteer at the helicopter landing site.
The attack comes as Libya’s parliament, elected in July, still needs to agree on a new administration. Prime Minister Ali Zidan, appointed Oct. 14 to replace his dismissed predecessor Mahmoud Abushagur, has yet to present a cabinet, leaving executive power in the hands of the previous government appointed by the former transitional administration.