By Mel Frykberg, McClatchy Newspapers –
CAIRO — Thousands of Libyan security force members and hundreds of militiamen have massed around the Libyan town of Bani Walid in a show of force that underscores how tense and fragile the country’s security situation remains, nearly one month after an attack by Islamist militants on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
The faceoff at Bani Walid pits militia forces once loyal to deposed dictator Moammar Gadhafi against Libyan security forces and militiamen from Misrata who were critical to the anti-Gadhafi uprising last year. The immediate cause is the death Sept. 25 of a militiaman who helped capture Gadhafi.
Security forces began laying siege to Bani Walid a week ago, demanding that Gadhafi loyalists implicated in the death of Omran Shaban be turned over. The siege has cut off food, water and medical supplies, with local doctors complaining that armed men set up a checkpoint on the main road from Tripoli, the capital, and blocked three vehicles carrying medical supplies, oxygen and medical personnel from reaching the town. Civilians trying to flee the town were prevented from doing so.
Amnesty International, the international advocacy group, last week denounced the cordon around Bani Walid. “It is worrying that what essentially should be a law enforcement operation to arrest suspects looks increasingly like a siege of a city and a military operation,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
Bani Walid was one of the last cities in Libya to capitulate to revolutionary forces after the fall of Gadhafi, and pro-Gadhafi tribes remain influential there. The current conflict arose after Shaban and several colleagues from Misrata were sent to Bani Walid in July to help free several journalists from Misrata who’d been abducted by gunmen.
Instead, Shaban, who is widely recognized as the militiaman who found Gadhafi hiding inside a drainage pipe outside the city of Sirte in October 2011, was taken captive. He was shot and allegedly tortured. He died Sept. 25 at a hospital in Paris, where he’d been taken for treatment after his release.
Libyan authorities ordered that Shaban’s abductors be surrendered, and when a deadline passed with no response from Bani Walid leaders, they called a general mobilization of forces to impose the siege. A new deadline has been set for Wednesday, though many in Bani Walid apparently were defiant and there were reports of fighting Monday, with at least one person killed. Egyptian diplomats, meanwhile, evacuated hundreds of Egyptians from the town, but militias at roadblocks have prevented the evacuation of hundreds more.
Security fears also have been raised in the town of Sousa, south of Benghazi, after members of Ansar al-Shariah, the militia alleged to be behind the attack on the U.S. consulate, were accused of killing four policemen during a grenade attack at a roadblock.
According to Libyan media reports, security force members surrounded about 150 Salafist gunmen, alleged to have links with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, holed up in the Sousa mountains. The Salafists include former Guantanamo Bay detainee and Ansar al-Shariah leader Sufian Ben Qamu, who reports said had allegedly ordered the killing of the policemen.
Mohammed Magarief, who as president of the National Congress is Libya’s top elected official, has said that AQIM gunmen participated in the consulate attack.