As the head of the rebel military council in Libya announces he knows the whereabouts of Colonel Gaddafi, Jonathan Miller reports from the road to Bani Walid, a remaining loyalist stronghold.
Amid reports that his troops have started to pull out, Bani Walid and its approaches remain insecure.
It’s noon, Sunday, and the former Libyan rebels – who now call themselves the Libyan National Army (LNA) – are still negotiating with the Warfallah tribal leaders in Bani Walid over the surrender of the town.
Their job is to persuade the Warfallah to renounce Colonel Gaddafi, leader of the Qaddadfah tribe, with which they have a binding tribal contract or alliance.
The “deadline” to surrender to which leaders of the National Transitional Council have referred last night has come and gone. The LNA soldiers gathered at a checkpoint 15 miles north of the town with a handful of “technicals” mounted with guns, say they belong to the “Hasm brigade”. In Arabic Hasm means “It’s over.” It’s not. But it does seem to be nearing the end.
In the searing desert heat Colonel Abdullah Assah told Channel 4 News: “Today we will free Bani Walid. We are ready. This will be a big shock to Gaddafi. He is over. We will make it peaceful, but there are Gaddafi forces there who will maybe try to fight us.”
Today we will free Bani Walid. We are ready. This will be a big shock to Gaddafi. Colonel Abdullah Assah
The colonel, who is from Bani Walid and who held the same rank in Gaddafi’s army until he defected in February, said Saif al-Islam and possibly at least one more of Gaddafi’s sons were thought to still be in Bani Walid, together with other prominent figures associated with the deposed regime, including former government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim.
“We will try to arrest them, all of them,” said Colonel Assah. “And Gaddafi too,” he laughed, although most Libyans seem to think the former Libyan leader is long gone and is either in the deep south or in the Algerian border region.
His sons and associates are being protected, the colonel said, by some soldiers from the Khamis brigades – formerly led by another of Gaddafi’s sons, who is thought to have been killed in an airstrike last week. Gaddafi loyalist forces include mercenaries, he said, who had been brought in from Chad, Niger, Mali, the Western Sahara and Mauritania.
On Saturday, in the nearby town of Tarhuna, people leaving Bani Walid told us they had seen 14 vehicles full of armed “black people” leaving the town in the morning, heading south for the city of Sabha on the edge of the Sahara.
There will be many in the region with long memories and will only be glad to be shot of Gaddafi.
One of the fighters at the new national army checkpoint on the road to Bani Walid claimed his unit of rebels had been involved in a heavy firefight last week with Libyan soldiers belonging to the Khamis brigades who were fighting alongside foreign mercenaries.
Nissar Abu-Baha was carrying camouflage body armour. “This,” he said, “was worn by one of the black fighters. I shot him in the head. Now it is mine.” He said it was obvious to Libyans that the African fighters were foreigners and not black Libyans, of which there are many.
In Bani Walid the loyalties of the majority Warfallah tribe appear to be split. Colonel Assah said most of the town’s residents wanted to fly the black and green tricolour, but other members of the Warfallah were insisting on protecting the fugitives, fighting tribal custom.
During nearly 42 years in power, Muammar Gaddafi played off Libya’s 30 major tribes against each other. The Warfallah are the largest of them all, covering about one million in a country of just over six million. His Qaddadfah tribe has blood ties to the Warfallah but did not always have good relations.
In 1993, 55 Warfallah officers were implicated in a coup attempt against him. Many of them were from Bani Walid and were later executed. There will be many in this region with long memories and will only be glad to be shot of Colonel Gaddafi.
At the desert checkpoint Colonel Assah pulled me up for referring to the erstwhile brother leader as Colonel Gaddafi. “Not ‘colonel’, please,” he said, waving his finger. “Gaddafi is mafia now – just a gang.”