BANI WALID/SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan interim government forces charged back into the besieged desert town of Bani Walid yesterday, a day after diehard loyalists of fallen strongman Muammar Gaddafi beat them into a humiliating retreat.
The new authorities’ forces were also battling pro-Gaddafi fighters inside the ousted leader’s home city Sirte but making little headway against stiff resistance, while celebrating the capture of the town of Herawa 60 km (40 miles) to the east.
Nearly a month since they drove Gaddafi’s forces out of the capital Tripoli, transitional government fighters have gotten mired in sieges of his loyalists’ remaining redoubts, raising doubt over whether they can quickly unite the vast country.
Gaddafi’s spokesman said the ousted leader was still in Libya and leading resistance. Moussa Ibrahim also accused NATO of killing 354 people in an overnight bombing of Sirte, an accusation that Reuters could not independently verify. The alliance said such accusations in the past had been false.
A column of National Transi-tional Council (NTC) pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft machine guns and fresh ammunition rushed into Bani Walid as dusk fell across Libya’s interior desert.
“Gaddafi forces attacked the checkpoint so our troops went in. There is a lot of fighting inside the city right now,” senior regional NTC official Abdullah Kenshil said.
The day before, NTC fighters seeking to capture Bani Walid had beat an embarrassing retreat under withering fire.
Other NTC forces have entered Sirte from the west and taken Herawa to the east, but have not been able to dislodge tenacious Gaddafi fighters from the Mediterra-nean coastal city.
Ibrahim, the deposed leader’s spokesman, contacted Reuters by satellite telephone to say Gaddafi was still in Libya, leading the “resistance” against his foes.
“We will be able to continue this fight and we have enough arms for months and months to come,” he said.
He said NATO air strikes on Sirte had hit a residential building and a hotel, killing 354 people. More than 700 people were wounded and 89 were missing from that bombing, he said, giving a total death toll for 17 days of more than 2,000 killed.
There was no way to verify the account, as pro-Gaddafi-held parts of the city were inaccessible. NATO has repeatedly denied in the past that its bombings — authorised by the United Nations to protect civilians — have killed many civilians.
“We are aware of these allegations,” Colonel Roland Lavoie, spokesman for the Western military alliance, said in Brussels. “It is not the first time such allegations have been made. Most often, they are revealed to be unfounded or inconclusive.”
Nearly a month after Gaddafi’s foes overran Tripoli, Libya’s interim council is unable to declare all of the oil-producing North African nation “liberated” and begin a timetable for drawing up a democratic constitution and holding elections.
Outside Bani Walid, NTC fighters blamed each other, their commanders and traitors for the previous day’s defeat.
“When we entered the city, snipers shot at us from the front and traitors shot at us from the back,” said fighter Abushusha Bellal. “They always play tricks and shoot us in the back.”