Gaddafi loyalists launch offensive on key oil town as counter-insurgency grows

Four killed in Bani Walid after government troops arrest supporter of former dictator

Fighting in the Libyan town of Bani Walid left at least four dead last night as diehard Gaddafi supporters tried to capture the former loyalist stronghold and raised the old green Libyan flag above the town's northern gate.

Mahmoud al-Warfali, a revolutionary brigade spokesman in Bani Walid, said that as many as 150 pro-Gaddafi fighters were battling forces loyal to the National Transitional Council in the formerly pro-regime redoubt, 110 miles south of the capital, Tripoli.

"There are around 100 and 150 men armed with heavy weapons who are attacking. We have asked for the army to intervene, but the defence ministry and NTC have let us down," he said. "There are at least four martyrs from the thuwar (anti-Gaddafi revolutionaries) and 20 are injured."

He added: "We're out of the frying pan into the fire. We've been warning about this for the past two months."

The loyalist fighters shouted the pro-Gaddafi slogan, "Allah, Muammar, Libya, only!" as they attacked.

The clashes were apparently sparked when NTC fighters arrested an alleged Gaddafi loyalist in the town, prompting other supporters to take up arms.

The fighting began early yesterday and was initially concentrated near the NTC fighters' base, but later spread to other parts of the town. Reinforcements have been dispatched from Tripoli to help quell the violence.

"Two hours ago orders were given for the army to go and they are on the way. The fighting is between some Gaddafi supporters and thuwar," Fathi Baja, a senior NTC member, told AFP.

The attack on Bani Walid is the first major assault launched by Gaddafi loyalists since the "liberation" of the country last October.

Bani Walid has long been a thorn in the side of Libya's new leaders. The town, which is home to the powerful Warfalla tribe, held out after the "liberation" of Tripoli in August. NTC fighters fought for months until it was eventually captured in October.

In November, 15 NTC fighters were killed in an ambush just outside the town by Gaddafi loyalists. The clashes come as Libya's new leaders struggle to stabilise the country and disarm the militias that sprung up during last year's civil war.

Rival militias have clashed on numerous occasions in recent months. In early January, two fighters were killed after a gun battle between rival groups broke out on one of the Tripoli's busiest streets.

Many complain that militias are reluctant to disband and are dragging their feet on surrendering weapons.

The tribal tensions stirred during the conflict have also left many groups in the country feeling disenfranchised. Residents of Bani Walid have complained that they have received little assistance in rebuilding their town after it was damaged in fighting between pro-Gaddafi fighters and the NTC's forces.

Libya's new leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, has warned that the clashes risked putting the country on the brink of another civil war. "We are now between two bitter options," he said in Benghazi.

The NTC has started to integrate the tens of thousands who fought in the rebel army into the new security forces or offer them vocational training through the Labour Ministry.

But Mr Abdel Jalil conceded progress had been too slow. "The fighters have not handed over their weapons despite the chances they've been given to do so through local councils," he said. "The response has been weak so far, people are still holding on to their weapons."