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Bani Walid: Gaddafi Stronghold Prepares For Battle

By HADEEL AL-SHALCHI   09/13/11 02:12 PM ET   AP

WADI DINAR, Libya -- The streets are now no man's lands. Stores were emptied of food and water days ago. Expert snipers on rooftops watch over one of the last strongholds of Moammar Gadhafi's rule.

The accounts from residents fleeing Bani Walid build a portrait of a battlefield-in-waiting for an expected all-out assault by the revolutionary forces now controlling much of Libya.

With anti-Gadhafi fighters massing on the outskirts, the desert crossroads 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli is seen as the next key showdown for the few loyalist bastions dotting Libya, including Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte. Parts of the town have been taken by the anti-Gadhafi opposition, but the heart of Bani Walid remains a redoubt for groups still flying the Gadhafi-era flag.

The resistance has been fierce – stalling the revolutionary units that swept through other areas after the capital Tripoli fell from Gadhafi's hands in late August. The loyalists are now readying for a possible last stand with a mix of firepower and guerrilla-style tactics: Firing Grad rockets toward the revolutionary outposts in nearby Wadi Dinar and coating the main road with oil slicks and other flammable materials so that cars slip back or touch off small fires.

The loyalist fighters – including crack marksmen from Gadhafi's sniper corps – have apparently opened the gates for residents to flee.

Residents describe leaving behind a virtual ghost town where food shops are nearly barren, electricity cuts are frequent and phone lines are down. Few people – except for fighters – dare to venture outside. The silence is broken by the exchange of fire from both sides and propaganda from a pro-Gadhafi radio station.

"The radio told us that NATO is out to get us and that the revolutionary forces want to steal our babies, kill us and rape us," said Ramadan Abdel-Rahman, who was fleeing with his wife and seven children, including a daughter less than two weeks old.

The radio transmitter apparently shifts from house to house to avoid being targeted by NATO airstrikes or opposition shelling. Rumors – that can't be independently investigated – say it is run by Moussa Ibrahim, the Gadhafi spokesman well known to foreign journalists during the final months of the regime's control in Tripoli.

The rules inside Bani Walid still cling to the Gadhafi-era thuggery against any hint of dissent, residents said.

Abdel-Rahman said he was the first in his neighborhood to show the tricolor flag of the anti-Gadhafi forces earlier this week.

"The Gadhafi loyalists banged my door down and entered. I had to shoot at them with my weapon," he claimed.

Gadhafi's remaining followers have followed a path of history to Bani Walid. The town is known as a place where Libyans have gone for centuries to escape occupation and conflicts. It sits in an easily defended valley that allows only one way in through ochre-hued mountains.

The center of the town is a large roundabout flanked by a market, hotel, an administrative building and a house Gadhafi built for himself on the grounds of an ancient Ottoman fort he demolished. Residents of Bani Walid said the fort had been a possible candidate to become a UNESCO heritage site.

The area is now the base for Gadhafi loyalists, residents said. Sniper nests dot the buildings and mortars and Grad rockets launchers are set up in the market.

Each foray by revolutionary fighters have met strong resistance, including the deadly aim of sharpshooters.

Jamal Bendella, a veteran hunter who joined the anti-Gadhafi brigades, said he could tell the loyalist snipers were well trained.

"They are very professional shooters ... They know what they're doing," he said. Doctors told the AP that many of the wounds on the rebel fighters were in the head, shoulders and abdomen with little sign of random gunfire.

There is also one last tribal card to play in the showdown. Gadhafi's tribe, the Gadhadhfa, have deep-rooted alliances with Bani Walid's Warfala clan that remain intact even after six months of civil war.

"Most of us are leaving because the radio station threatened that anyone supporting the rebels will be murdered," said Abu Rassim al-Firjani as he drove out on Tuesday. His wife sat in the passenger seat, blotting her tears with the edge of her head scarf.

They joined the exodus of cars on the only asphalt road that connects Bani Walid and Tripoli, passing through olive groves and lonely sheep farms.

Outside Bani Walid, opposition fighters went through weapons drills Tuesday for a possible intensified assault. They practiced launching rockets and rocket-propelled grenades into the rocky mountains, setting off large clouds of dust and smoke.

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Filed by Clare Richardson  |