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Libyan Rebels Threaten To Invade Bani Walid


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is on assignment in Afghanistan. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Libya's rebels are blocking the exits to a town called Bani Walid. It's the latest location of a front line in the war to capture the final strongholds of the ousted leader Moammar Gadhafi. Now, over the weekend, efforts to negotiate the town's surrender broke down, and now rebels are threatening to attack, as NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

Unidentified People: (Speaking foreign language)

JASON BEAUBIEN: At a rebel checkpoint 30 miles outside of Bani Walid, rebel gunmen are itching to take over the town of roughly 70,000 people. Pickup trucks overflowing with rebel soldiers have been rushing towards the pro-Gadhafi town. Leaders of the new transitional government, however, want to avoid any more bloody battles as they work to try to set up a new government in Tripoli.

Over the weekend, the head of the rebels' interim administration extended a deadline for Bani Walid and Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte to surrender. Local military leaders are giving a different message, saying the deadline for Bani Walid has already passed.

Abdul Kenshil, who was heading the rebels' efforts to negotiate a settlement to the Bani Walid standoff, says the negotiations are finished.

Mr. ABDUL KENSHIL: Negotiation with the brigades has ended. But discussion with our people in Bani Walid always, always open.

BEAUBIEN: Kenshil says the rebels are trying to work out a peaceful solution through unconventional channels, talking to residents who are outside of the leadership.

Currently the revolutionaries have Bani Walid surrounded on three sides. They're not allowing residents to travel in or out of the area. The electricity has been cut off. Kenshil says one of Gadhafi's sons, Seif, was seen in Bani Walid just two days ago. Another son is reportedly still inside. And Gadhafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, is also there.

Mr. KENSHIL: Moussa Ibrahim, we know him, and we know where he goes. And we asked our people, don't hurt him because we want him alive.

BEAUBIEN: The rebels, however, are preparing for a potentially brutal battle in Bani Walid. They say Gadhafi loyalists have distributed weapons throughout the town and installed sniper positions on the tallest buildings. The rebels are setting up field hospitals behind their front lines in anticipation of casualties.

Despite reports of some minor skirmishes on the outskirts of Bani Walid, Dr. Mohaned Bendaala says there haven't yet been any patients brought to this clinic. Bendaala is working with the rebels, but he's from Bani Walid. He says his family members, who are still there, say it's very tense inside the town.

Dr. MOHANED BENDAALA: There is a lot of pro-Gadhafis there, as well as anti-Gadhafis. But anti-Gadhafis, they have no activity because of the brutality of the pro-Gadhafis.

BEAUBIEN: Bani Walid is the base of the largest tribe in Libya, the Warfallah. Gadhafi gave key security positions to members of the Warfallah and spent millions of dollars wooing tribal leaders. Despite this, the Warfallah were linked to a 1993 coup attempt against Gadhafi.

Bendaala, however, says the current tribal leaders are not representative of the people in Bani Walid.

Dr. BENDAALA: Head of a tribe, after 22 years in Gadhafi's power, means that he is the most loyal to Gadhafi. He's not the most intelligent. He's not the most powerful man. No, he's the most loyal to Gadhafi. And he was given money and power to serve Gadhafi's purposes.

BEAUBIEN: Just because the tribal leaders and the town elders refuse to negotiate a settlement, Bendaala says, that doesn't mean many other people in Bani Walid don't want to peacefully switch sides and join the revolution.

Rebels say an attack on the town could come at any time.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.