Fighters of Libya’s new regime launched a fresh assault on the desert oasis of Bani Walid on Sunday, even as fighting eased in the city of Sirte, the other main holdout of Moamer Kadhafi diehards.
“We have resumed combat operations and we have advanced from the northern front as well as from the south,” said Musa Yunis, who heads National Transitional Council (NTC) forces in Bani Walid, some 170 kilometres (100 miles) southeast of Tripoli.
NTC fighters have surrounded the town but their commanders pulled them back last week after suffering heavy losses and to prepare for a new offensive against the 1,500 pro-Kadhafi fighters thought to remain in Bani Walid.
The disparate forces of the new regime had a week ago paid a heavy price for their lack of coordination, having to abandon control of the airport and suffering heavy casualties with 17 men killed and more than 80 wounded.
In Sirte on the Mediterranean coast, where fierce clashes between NTC forces and those loyal to deposed leader Kadhafi have raged for a month, Sunday saw a lull with only intermittent shelling and rocket-fire, AFP correspondents said.
“We are shelling with tanks and anti-aircraft weapons and then we will send our troops onto the streets,” said Salem Ahmed, a tank commander from the eastern city of Benghazi.
Ahmed said the advance was being held up by pro-Kadhafi snipers.
“A few snipers can stop an army. They are very professional. They shoot in the heart, the head, the chest.”
Focus of the NTC operations are two seaside residential neighbourhoods, the Dollar and Number Two, where Kadhafi loyalists are holed up.
One NTC fighter told AFP there had been an exodus of civilians from the two neighbourhoods early Sunday and that the besieging troops wanted to give others the chance to leave.
“Around 30 families fled the neighbourhoods around 6:00 am (0400 GMT) and, looking at them, we are holding fire so that others can also flee,” fighter Ahmed Farjani told AFP.
Sunday’s lull contrasted sharply with the previous day when Kadhafi loyalists mounted a fierce counter-attack, forcing back the NTC fighters under a barrage of rockets and shelling.
A medic at a field hospital behind the eastern front line said four NTC fighters were killed and 22 wounded in the fighting on that side of the city on Saturday.
“Those killed were mainly from sniper bullets. And the wounded were injured by explosions and rocket attacks,” Dr Ahmed Bushariya told AFP.
A commander on the western side of the city echoed the concern about the sniper threat.
“At the very front line, they have very professional snipers,” said Salah al-Jabo. “According to doctors, 80 percent of the fighters killed in the past two days were shot in the head or in the chest.”
In the eastern city off Benghazi, officers of the former Libyan army on Sunday defended the institution’s role in the revolution which brought down Kadhafi and pledged its support for the country’s new rulers.
The military “fought alongside civilian revolutionaries right from the start of the uprising in February,” insisted General Ahmed al-Gotrani at a conference on preparations for the formation of a new Libyan army.
“We backed up the revolutionaries with our experience, our advice, but also with arms and equipment,” said the general, who stressed he was speaking on behalf of the whole army.
“Our army was treated with contempt and ignored by Colonel Kadhafi,” Gotrani said, adding that “many soldiers were killed and sacrificed for the revolution.”
Officials in Bamako, meanwhile, said on Sunday that more than 400 armed Tuaregs had arrived in Mali from Libya where they fought in Kadhafi’s army.
The Libyan nationals of Malian origin crossed into northern Mali aboard a 78-vehicle convoy on Saturday “with weapons and luggage,” a Malian security source said.
The repatriation of hundreds of fighters is “a serious worry”, UN special envoy to west Africa Said Djinnit told reporters. The men arrived “in confusion, with big re-entry problems, which has increased the insecurity in the north of Mali.”