Rebels struggle to take control of loyalist towns


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The Independent Online

Libya's former rebels were forced to retreat from advances into key loyalist strongholds yesterday, as the country's interim leaders failed to agree a new cabinet.

Opposition fighters met stiff resistance as well as dissent within their own ranks as they battled to take the towns of Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha in the south where forces loyal to former leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi continue to hold out against opposition forces.

A chaotic retreat ensued from Bani Walid after the latest attempt by anti-Gaddafi forces to take the town, setting off angry recriminations among the attackers who must capture the strongholds before they can declare Libya "liberated".

"There is a lack of organisation so far. Infantry men are running in all directions," said Zakaria Tuham, a senior fighter with a Tripoli-based unit. "Our commanders had been told that heavy artillery units had already gone ahead, but when we advanced into Bani Walid they were nowhere to be seen. Gaddafi forces were hitting us heavily with rockets and mortars, so we have pulled out."

Rebel leaders had predicted on Saturday that Colonel Gaddafi's home town of Sirte would fall within days, but the picture on the ground sounded somewhat different.

A rebel fighter, Abdul Rauf al-Mansuri, on the outskirts of the loyalist stronghold said: "We don't even have 5 per cent of Sirte because we just go in and out."

A teacher fleeing Sirte, Nouri Abu Bakr, told Associated Press conditions there were worsening, with no electricity or medicine and food supplies nearly exhausted.

In recent days Nato warplanes continued to hit the country with air strikes, hitting 11 targets around the Gaddafi stronghold on Saturday, a further 11 in the Al-Jufra oasis and three in southern city of Sabha.

But Colonel Gaddafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, pledged continuing defiance. "We will continue this fight and we have enough arms for months and months to come," he told Reuters news agency. He said that air raids had killed 354 people in Sirte, a claim dismissed by a Nato spokesman.

As messy fighting dragged on yesterday, talks on appointing a cabinet for the National Transitional Council stalled, marking the latest setback to attempts to normalise the running of a government.

A new executive committee, to include officials responsible for defence and interior affairs, was supposed to be appointed by the interim Prime Minister, Mahmoud Jibril, yesterday.

But the talks broke down when his proposals did not receive full backing from all current members.