Uprisings Still Plague Libya
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
You may recall that Bani Walid was the Libyan town that proved to be one of the last redoubts of pro-Moammar Gadhafi forces in last year's fighting. It's about 90 miles inland from Misrata. It is surrounded by the Libyan Desert. And it is once again the scene of some fighting. There was an attack on a garrison there recently, in which several Gadhafi-era officials who had been arrested for war crimes were set free.
Reporter Chris Stephen of the British daily, The Guardian, got near Bani Walid and joins us now from Tripoli.
And, Chris, first: How big is the conflict in Bani Walid and who's fighting whom there?
CHRIS STEPHEN: Well, the conflict is pretty big as it gets going. At the moment, there's a truce. And it's basically the former rebel army, who are now the pro-government army, against militias within Bani Walid who, I suppose, were with Gadhafi and are now independent.
SIEGEL: And what is the complaint of those who used to be pro-Gadhafi and are now independent?
STEPHEN: Well, their side of the story is that they're, you know, a town trying to get on with its own affairs and that they've been interfered with. And that pro-government militias have been robbing and pillaging - that was last autumn - and that more recently, they've been arresting men who they say are totally innocent.
SIEGEL: Arresting them for things that they did during the fighting or during the Gadhafi regime?
STEPHEN: Well, according to the townsfolk, these people are simply innocent people who shouldn't be arrested. According to the people doing the arresting, these are war criminals. And the government militias say, well, these people are war criminals from all over the country and have sort of drifted into Bani Walid because they know they can get sanctuary.
SIEGEL: When there was fighting before the truce, are we talking about small arms fire or are there tanks involved? How much arms are involved here?
STEPHEN: Well, the fighting blew up last Monday when they made an arrest apparently of a local man who had a lot of local connections. And then his family and his clan turned up at the army base. Now, what happened next or who started it is not quite clear. But what is clear is that there was an assault on the army base with rockets and machine gunfire. Four soldiers were killed, and I understand about 11 local people were killed. Now, whether they're local fighters or local civilians is not clear.
But it ended with the government forces evacuating the town and taking up positions around it and has since been reinforced by militias from all over Libya.
SIEGEL: Does this conflict between a Libyan town and the National Transitional Council, which is, I guess, what passes for the Libyan government these days, is that very unusual? Might it be common throughout the country? What would you say?
STEPHEN: Skirmishes are pretty common around Libya. Some of them do seem to have a political aspect. Others seem to be simply local clans settling scores. I think one of the problems is that there are so many small arms around that it's very easy for score settling these days because there's so much ammunition.
SIEGEL: But does the fact that these were pro-Gadhafi forces in Bani Walid, should one take that as a sign that there might be movement of some sort of restoration of people who supported Gadhafi to the end?
STEPHEN: Well, I think probably not. I don't think - some of the reports have said that this is part of a Gadhafi uprising. But I think it may just be more local. I think the problem is that this was always a very pro-Gadhafi town, and that now the remnants of the - the bits and pieces of the Gadhafi administration, all of them have come to Bani Walid for shelter. And it's causing a big problem with the government militias because they're saying, look, there's got to be just one country here.
I think Bani Walid, I think the people there feel they're a bit caught in the middle because they're not particularly wanting to be associated with these people. But on the other hand, they're living in their midst, and they have guns and are perhaps difficult to confront.
SIEGEL: Do you have any sense of whether the current truce is likely to last or is there a limit to the patience of the pro-government militias? What would you say?
STEPHEN: I think the truce is very precarious because the key issue is these alleged suspects, which the militias insist are being harbored in Bani Walid. Bani Walid, again, is very - is saying, well, you know, we don't have these people. And the militias are saying that you do. Now, if they're not handed over, it seems likely that the militias may take matters into their own hands and go back into the town to look for them. And I think that's the danger and that's where there's going to be a confrontation.
SIEGEL: OK. Well, Chris Stephen, thanks very much for talking with us about it.
SIEGEL: That's reporter Christ Stephen of The Guardian speaking to us from Tripoli, in Libya, about the conflict in the Libyan town of Bani Walid.
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