SAIF AL ISLAM GADDAFI – MY TRIPOLI TOUR GUIDE

Libya Part I - 114

Nathan, Saif, Lisa and I return from our tour of the city

Saif al Islam was fashionably late. So fashionably late in fact, that we had got more and more comfortable in his suite as the minutes ticked by. We were wondering if he would actually turn up when he suddenly appeared in the room unannounced. We shot guiltily out of our seats, although I am not sure why since we had been let in by his security guards and he was expecting us.

Nathan the cameraman and I had had ample time to nose around – ostensibly setting up the lighting for the interview – while his secret police stood around the doorway with scowls on their faces and bulges in their dark leather jackets. The living room was the height of decadence, with gold brocade sofas carefully distributed across the shiny parquet floor to be shown off to best effect under the discreet spotlights in the ceiling. Chaises longues covered with plush burgundy cushions occupied corners, accessorized with delicate dark wood occasional tables and standing lamps. Although seemingly designed to mimic a period style cosy reading corner, it looked more like an expensive furniture show room and there were no books in sight. Nathan and I took pleasure rearranging the furniture to suit our purposes, upsetting the delicate feng shui in the process. Lisa the correspondent and I had read that the rest of the suite included a jacuzzi and an intriguing-sounding Finnish bath somewhere too, although none of us dared venture that far into the lair.

Libya Part I - 377

Gaddafi’s army on the streets

Colonel Gaddafi’s son was dressed in ‘skinny’ jeans, a casual rumpled checked shirt and trendy trainer-esque shoes. He was clean-shaven, his hair closely shorn and sported expensive looking rimless glasses. He had everything of the cosmopolitan jet-setting playboy about him, relaxed and smiling – seemingly without a care in the world. He oozed confidence and a certain ‘ownership’ of the situation and circumstances. But if you had been asked to guess at his background or position, powerful son of an African or Middle Eastern dictator would not have been your first choice.

It was 3rd March 2011 and barely a fortnight into Libya’s revolution. The Regime was still feeling strong; the Gaddafi family still very much in charge. We were ‘guests’ of the regime; fed propaganda, and at this point gently imprisoned in the 5-star Rixos hotel in the centre of Tripoli and ‘invited’ to be escorted to events set-up by the regime. This was before Gaddafi’s closest entourage became aggressive, before their desperate attempts to cling onto power translated with the foreign press into overt intimidation and monitoring.

Libya Part I - 279

Hosted as guests of the regime, Gaddafi supporters mysteriously ‘appeared’ everywhere we went

The interview had been a coup and one we had secured by literally loitering outside the doors of Saif’s suite and badgering his entourage. It was the first interview given by Colonel Gaddafi’s heir apparent and his most media-savvy and cosmopolitan son. Saif had studied at the London School of Economics and had a reputation for being a bit of a party boy as a student. Now he was back in Libya alongside his father, running his media campaign at a time when the country looked to be heading in the same direction as Tunisia and Egypt before it – adding another uprising to the so-called Arab Spring.

Saif did not seem unduly concerned that his father’s empire might be about to come crumbling down around them and his legacy with it. He humoured us as we asked pointed questions and laughed off any suggestion that Colonel Gaddafi was losing his grip after over 40 years in power.

Lisa then asked him why every journalist invited into the country was effectively imprisoned in this luxurious spa hotel. Was it because he and his father did not want us to see what was really going on? What of the demonstrations on the streets we were hearing about? And the youtube videos purporting to show violence bubbling in some districts of Tripoli?

His response was a dismissive wave of the hand as if swatting away an annoying fly, followed by a magnanimous sweeping gesture and with the lightest chortle:

– “You are free to go wherever you wish! You can see whatever you like, we have nothing to hide.”

– “You are not in prison here!”

Lisa grabbed the opportunity:

– “So prove it.”

His bodyguards looked uncomfortable and one of them shuffled in his chair, scraping the legs across the parquet floor. Saif waved them off. He was enjoying this.

– “Prove it. In fact, why don’t you come out with us, show us your city.” Lisa insisted.

– “Of course! No problem, we will organise it.” He said.

Lisa was like a dog with a bone. If he left the room, we would never get the chance again.

– “9 o’clock tomorrow morning? You’ll take us to where we want to go in Tripoli”

And before he knew it, he had agreed. Much to his bodyguards’ alarm.

We never expected Saif to actually turn up the following morning. But he did. Colonel Gaddafi’s son arrived with a flourish. His cream armoured car, closely followed by an identical SUV with bodyguards on board, was waved through the gates by the armed guards. The mini convoy sped down the long driveway flanked by towering lush bushes and manicured flower beds towards the grand pillared entrance of our palatial prison. As the cars came to a halt beside us, bouncing our reflections back at us in the bullet-proof glass, Saif al-Islam hopped out of the passenger seat and greeted us warmly. He remembered our names and joked as we got in “you don’t have any guns with you do you?”

Journalists who had been hanging around in the lobby were left open-mouthed as Nathan, Lisa and I clambered into the armoured car and drove off. Nathan filmed Lisa and Saif’s conversation from the front passenger seat and, squeezed between Saif and a side window in the back, I filmed shots of Tripoli and close-ups from an alternative angle, so that we could edit it later as a standalone exclusive interview.

Saif had no prior knowledge of where we wanted to go and playfully left the itinerary in our hands; instructing his driver to take us where we wanted. We chose the districts of Fashlun and Tajoura, both suburbs of Tripoli where anti-Gaddafi feeling was rumoured to be taking hold.   I have to be honest, there was no sign of unrest or evidence of the regime using violence to squash public discontent. We were only in any one place for a matter of minutes so who knows what was going on under the surface. It was clear though that Saif’s armoured SUV was recognised immediately wherever we went.   But Gaddafi did not bat an eyelid when we asked him to pull over and get out for a walkabout on the main street of Fashlun. And no sooner had he emerged from the armoured car than he was surrounded by supporters waving pictures of his father, and lunging at him to shake his hand.

Libya Part I - 91

Saif goes on an impromptu ‘walkabout’ on the streets of Fashlun

On this occasion we could not accuse him of having set it up and if the people coming out of their homes to greet him – who arguably could just have stayed indoors – were doing so out of duress or fear, they were hiding it well. He was by no means mobbed, we passed through quickly and this was just one road in Tripoli on a single day in March 2011.   I am not suggesting that this represented a country’s support or indeed that this meant Saif al Islam was loved by the Libyan people. Indeed, a matter of days later we would witness demonstrations and riots in Fashlun and Tajoura for ourselves. But he had done what very few leaders and commanders I have worked with before and since would dare to do: he had taken a big risk with the media and brazenly pulled it off. As far as public relations exercises went, it was an impressive display.

Libya Part I - 21

The uprising Saif denied was happening – a captured tank in Zawiya

As Tripoli fell to the rebels in 2011, Saif al Islam was pictured smiling broadly – reportedly still in the capital. Sitting in an armoured SUV, he wagged his index finger – a gesture that had become a trademark during his rallying speeches – warning that the Gaddafis were not done. When he was tracked down just over two months later by rebel forces, he was pictured with a bandaged right hand. Although official reports said the injuries were sustained before capture during a NATO air strike, others suggested his rebel captors had tried to chop off the offending digit to silence its wagging once and for all.

That was nearly four years ago. Last week, after a trial that lasted nearly 18 months, a court in Tripoli sentenced Saif al Islam to death by firing squad.

But he was not in the courtroom. He was in a jail over 100 miles away in a town called Zintan. His captors are refusing to hand over their prize to the government in Tripoli. That government in Tripoli is locked in a power struggle with another government based in the Eastern city of Tobruk. The initial optimism after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011 for a united and democratic Libya is long gone. The country has descended into civil war with ISIL fighters reportedly cashing in on the chaos. It is hardly surprising then that the verdict has garnered more column inches in the international community than it has in the country itself.

International organisations focus on reports of torture, human rights and the fairness – or lack thereof – of the Libyan justice system. Their arguments are falling on deaf ears with Libyan leaders battling for survival and fighting each other. And in practice, a sentence passed down by a court that does not hold the prisoner, and with little real control over the country it purports to represent seems somewhat academic. Most Libyans have more pressing worries than the fate of Saif al Islam anyway.

I remember the once grinning, defiant playboy cum aspiring leader. I reluctantly found him educated, eloquent, convincing and even charming. He made the mistake of believing his own hype. When trusted confidants and government ministers defected to the West like rats leaving a sinking ship, he laughed. As his people rioted in the street, he dismissed them. He ignored the most blatant signs that his time was up. It was the behaviour of the most arrogant of men. So it is difficult to imagine how he feels now: dressed in grubby prison overalls, sitting in a dingy cell in Zintan, with his home and country in a violent semi-anarchic chaos. His own arrogance robbed him of a chance to start a new life abroad. His captors now deprive him of the chance of a martyr’s death. And the people of Libya, many of whom used to cheer his name and many of whom thought he heralded a new era for their country have expressed barely a passing interest in his fate.

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Inside the Gaddafi regime

(First published in Pen & Sword Club “Scratchings” newsletter June 2011)

As ‘guests’, we were in turn hosted and suffocated, welcomed and intimidated, engaged and spied upon, embraced and punched, accommodated and imprisoned. The same people were warm, good-mannered and kind one day; contemptuous, rude and violent the next. The pendulum swung in seconds and with little or no warning. And these were the people in whose hands we had effectively put our lives for the duration of our stay. Our hosts: the ‘Brother Leader’ Colonel Gaddafi and his Libyan regime. I’ve been a peacekeeper stuck in the middle of warring factions in Bosnia and Kosovo, mobilised as part of the coalition force in Iraq and later returned as an embedded Sky News journalist. More recently my country of choice has been Afghanistan as a – sometimes-embedded, sometimes free-moving – reporter.

These deployments have undoubtedly been challenging, exhausting, in parts traumatic, and all without exception hugely rewarding. With hindsight though they have been in many ways relatively straightforward and predictable. The Arab Spring brought an altogether new experience for me. The uprisings spread across the Middle East and eventually opponents to the Gaddafi regime in Libya launched their offensive in earnest with their so-called ‘Day of Rage’ on 17th February. Colonel Gaddafi and his entourage were initially predictably tight-lipped and refused entry Visas to all Western journalists. Eventually hours spent getting to know the embassy staff in London paid off and our 3-man Sky News team had clearance to go to Tripoli – as ‘guests’ of the regime. Gatwick airport was thronging with families carrying backpacks and skis. One check-in desk at the far end of the terminal stood clear of queues. Afriqiyah Airways had one flight departing – to Tripoli.

Under the perplexed gaze of holidaymakers, Lisa Holland – the Sky Foreign Affairs correspondent, Nathan Hale – our cameraman, and I checked in for our unconventional mini-break. We started our (‘it’ll be about three or four days’) mini break in February. We next set foot on British soil in April. We were in Tripoli as the stalemate with Gaddafi escalated, watched on Libyan State television as the votes were cast at the United Nations and the No-Fly zone was agreed. We were inside Colonel Gaddafi’s compound as the first bombing missions were launched, and were woken by nightly firefights, anti-aircraft fire and the sound of NATO planes overhead. And when we weren’t taking cover from our RAF compatriots’ raids overhead, we were talking down increasingly desperate regime goons brandishing guns at us. At least in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, I had within reason been able to identify potential enemy and threats and distinguish them from friendly forces who might provide help, safe haven and evacuation.  Here on the ground in Tripoli – apart from a last resort and very risky emergency escape plan – our ‘enemy’ and ‘friendly forces’ were effectively one and the same, just swapping at the drop of a hat from host to hangman.

We and about forty other journalists were cossetted in the 5-star Rixos hotel. Our 5-star prison – effectively under ‘hotel-arrest’. All of us at some point tried to leave without a minder, to get the ‘real’ story. All of us were escorted back with a slapped wrist, like naughty school children. Some got further afield, some were detained for hours, some were even tortured. But all were eventually rounded up by militia or soldiers at checkpoints, by men in leather jackets emerging at speed from unmarked minibuses, or by informant taxi drivers on the regime’s payroll.

Back at the hotel, the anti-virus software on our laptops fought a constant battle against ‘hackers’ over the hotel wifi. Every phone call was accompanied at the very least by a loud click; and at its most ridiculous, by the sound of someone else picking up a handset and voices chatting in Arabic in the background. The circus continued when parts of conversations we’d had over the phone were casually related to us by government representatives – a not-so-subtle reminder that they had all the power and were monitoring our every move. One such moment came from the official government spokesman himself. With a tone of concern and a beatific smile, he asked me about my family and how worried they must be about me. I had returned from a Tripoli hospital in plaster after breaking my wrist earlier in the day and had just called home to let them know. The spokesman recounted the words of my family to me almost verbatim.

But in a spurt of over-confidence he then went on to ask about the wellbeing of a daughter I do not have; having clearly mistaken in his hasty eavesdropping, the name of my cat for one of offspring. I smiled, thanked him for his concern and went on my way with a wry chuckle. He was the least of my worries. I had an admirer, a senior government minder, and a pretty persistent one at that. I could not brush him off politely; and to do so more forcefully would have put me and my team in a very precarious and potentially dangerous position. If I was going to have to put up with that I thought; it may as well be useful to us. So I drank numerous cups of mint tea, smiled as he tried to order me around like his chattel, allowed him to carry my tripod, edged gently away from his wandering hands, chatted during cosy coach rides and didn’t flinch at his whispered ‘sweet nothings’ during his translations of speeches. After one long press conference during which he draped himself over my chair and ‘translated’ for me, a Channel Four colleague commented that I ‘oozed rejection’ and ‘couldn’t the slimeball see that?’. It was a game of cat and mouse for all of us; and one that was only bearable to play thanks to a press-pack that put aside all competing interests and united in banter, support and camaraderie in the face of a common foe. And let’s face it; I had it easy. Three of our BBC colleagues were detained for two days, hooded, cuffed and subjected to mock executions. Enough to mobilise even the most cynical and selfish of hacks. This had the making of a BBC exclusive; but as soon as the three had been released and were safely out of the country; the BBC chose to release the interviews and pictures of their story to other broadcasters and we all ran it extensively.

We were of course in the country by choice, and had passports that protected us, that got us out when we needed to. Iman Al-Obeidi did not. She was the Libyan law student who made world headlines after she burst into our hotel breakfast room one morning screaming in Arabic. After realising she was no suicide bomber (our instinctive assumption), slowly journalists gathered to sit her down and try to speak to her. Banging the table and pointing out bruises and scratches, she accused the Gaddafi regime of detaining her, then beating and gang-raping her. Within minutes we had mobilised our cameramen and were capturing her story. Instantly mobilised too though was the army of hotel staff who joined the official minders to attempt to shut her up. She was literally muzzled by one. A waitress then threatened Iman with a knife shortly before her young colleague expertly threw a jacket over the treacherous woman’s head and dragged her to the door. The minders smashed cameras, punched journalists and tried to wrestle equipment and footage off us. One minder who had been full of concern at my broken wrist just twelve hours before, and had been offering the services of a doctor-cousin of his, pulled a gun on us. Somehow we got the footage out to London over our satellite dish. We then agreed with other broadcasters who had been there that we would share the story and give it the widest possible airing.

We’d been in Tripoli for five weeks, welcomed initially like long-awaited friends. We’d been taken on tightly controlled trips to alleged NATO air strikes on civilians, pro-Gaddafi demonstrations, and visits to alleged Al Qaeda prisoners plotting against Gaddafi. We had been fed daily press conferences by a state claiming to be unfairly victimised by the West and accused of atrocities against its people it had not and would never commit. As we had got increasingly frustrated by our smiling gaolers and gilded cage, they had got increasingly angry with our desire to escape their clutches and their propaganda. The smiling masks had begun to slip and the earlier superficial warmth was replaced by orders announced over Tannoy and the occasional uncontrolled venomous outburst. Despite the glaring evidence we had managed to gather; the daily arrests of errant journalists, the threats, the intimidation and guards physically barring us from leaving the hotel, the regime still blindly reiterated its message; insisting this was all a figment of our biased imaginations. But weeks of pressure had taken their toll. They were holding on so tight they momentarily lost control.

One woman had somehow made her way unobserved into one of the regime’s fortresses and she had lit the fuse. And that day, the world was shown just what the Gaddafi regime is really capable of. And yet, more than two months on, journalists are still sequestered at the Rixos hotel in Tripoli, the minders watch them more closely, the Tannoy still bellows out and the phones click. The nights (and now the days) are filled with the noise of NATO air strikes. The café still serves gallons of mint tea, and no doubt my admirer is circling around his next prey. Iman has since popped up in Jordan and Romania and if reports are to be believed, is heading back to her native Benghazi. The regime spokesman still holds a daily press conference. Libya is still the victim of the colonialist oil-hungry West and Colonel Gaddafi is still in power.

Ex-Libya PM jailed for illegal entry into Tunisia

The former prime minister of ousted Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s government has been jailed for six months in Tunisia for entering the country illegally.

Al Baghdadi Ali al Mahmoudi was arrested after security forces found him without a visa in his passport near Tamaghza at the border with Algeria on Wednesday.

He was sentenced to half a year behind bars when he faced the state prosecutor on Thursday.

Earlier this month, another member of Gaddafi’s inner circle, Khouildi Hamidi, was briefly detained at Tunis airport for illegal entry.

The latest arrest and sentencing comes days after the interim Libyan government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), captured key sites in one of Gaddafi’s last strongholds of Sabha.

It has now been claimed that forces loyal to the NTC uncovered a stash of chemical weapons when taking hold of the town.

But there may have been a bigger prize concealed there.

There are fresh – as yet, unconfirmed – reports of sightings of Col Gaddafi himself fleeing the town as it fell.

Both the towns of Sabha and Jufra in the southern desert are now fully in the hands of the NTC, according to its military spokesman.

In the former regime strongholds in the north of the country, it is a different story.

Pro-Gaddafi fighters in Bani Walid and Sirte continue to hold out against NTC assaults and Nato air strikes.

The resolve and heavy defences of the pro-Gaddafi forces are giving rise to speculation that there must still be something or someone valuable worth protecting and fighting for.

Outside the towns, the frustration is mounting amongst the rebels. So far they have made little progress beyond the outskirts.

Every advance has been repelled by heavy artillery and mortars. As they move closer to the centres, snipers are picking off fighters and bringing an ever-increasing number of casualties.

The inability to make any inroads is causing frustration and boredom among the NTC forces stationed outside the towns.

Tensions are also reaching boiling point between local fighters and outside reinforcements, causing rifts and accusations of treachery in the ranks.

That friction has been mirrored in the NTC’s efforts to agree on a new government.

An announcement of its members was expected earlier this week but has repeatedly been postponed. It is hoped the return of NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil from the United States will be the catalyst for agreement.

His efforts to bring its members and the country together have reportedly received a financial boost, with a surprise find in the Central Bank of Libya.

Officials from the Libyan stabilisation team say they have found $23bn worth of assets. The new funds will help set the country on track for redevelopment.

It is still waiting for international sanctions to be lifted on much of the Libyan assets frozen under the Gaddafi regime.

Gunshots Part Of Everyday Life In Tripoli

We were just about to have some dinner in our small hotel in central Tripoli when the quiet streets were suddenly filled with loud bangs and shouts.  Initially we barely flinched – in a city where every other man is armed these days, celebratory gunfire is just part of the daily colour on the streets.

The odd shot here and there turns into a cacophony of automatic fire most Thursday evenings when the residents of the capital stream on foot and in their cars towards Martyrs – formerly Gaddafi’s ‘Green’ – Square.

It is gridlock.

The new national anthem blaring out of loud speakers mixes with the sound of ammunition and fireworks; the resurrected flag of the Libyan monarchy brandished from every car window and sold at impromptu souvenir stalls.

But this evening was different.  Somehow the gunshots were more threatening, focused and less carefree.  As we moved down the street to find out what was going on; NTC forces sped past us towards the commotion.

More gunshots and screams brought one of them back towards us – there was a Gaddafi supporter he said, one who was resisting arrest.  He was armed he said, and firing at the NTC men trying to talk him down.  By this time, families were coming out onto the balconies of the apartment blocks above.  They peered down the street, shouting at us to get back and stay out of the way.  Young lads ran past, eager to see what all the fuss was about.

A few nights ago their boyish fascination with guns and drama got a gruesome reward.

One of the revolutionaries guarding the street had been demonstrating a move to his colleagues when his AK47 went off.  He was taken to Tripoli central hospital with a gaping wound to the stomach.  Tonight though, they came back looking thoroughly dejected.  It was not a Gaddafi supporter after all. Just a neighbourhood dispute that had got out of hand. No bloody firefight, no excitement for them.

Earlier today we visited a boy their age in a Tripoli hospital. We were filming there a few weeks ago when 15-year-old Abdul was rushed into the Emergency department with his friend.  The two boys had found a grenade outside their school – a remnant of the fierce battles during the ‘liberation’ of Tripoli.  They had been trying to prise open their new toy when it blew up in their faces.

Abdul is starting to smile again and enjoying the home-cooked food his father brings into the hospital.  But he has got a long and slow recovery ahead. And it will be a while before he comes to terms with his best friend’s death.  No such harm done this evening. But it is worrying to see guns and bullets become such common currency on the streets; representative of playtime and celebration rather than the lethal weapons of war they really are.

The National Transitional Council says it will eventually collect the weapons off the streets of Libya.

Let’s hope that by then they haven’t become such an entrenched part of everyday life that people won’t want to give them up.

Libya: Infighting Stalls Interim Govt Talks

After the jubilation and cheers that surrounded David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Libya last week, it is back to business for the nation’s ruling National Transitional Council (NTC).

The two European leaders acknowledged there would be big challenges to come – but the NTC must have hoped those challenges would not come quite so soon.

The Libyan leaders had planned to follow up the high-profile international visitswith a high-profile announcement of their own – a new government committee or cabinet that would bring unity to a country divided along tribal and geographical lines.

Despite negotiations over the weekend in Benghazi, council members have been unable to agree on the set-up of the new body or on its members.

The indication from an NTC spokesman so far is that it will be formed of 24 members, rather than the 36 they had originally mooted.  NTC interim head Mahmoud Jibril is favourite to continue as prime minister, but is likely to relinquish his second post of foreign minister.  We are told the cabinet will “expire as soon as they have declared full liberation of Libyan lands”, paving the way for democratic elections.  The spokesman said this could be “in two weeks, two months or two years, depending on how long it takes to liberate the lands”.

But it is precisely this ‘liberation’ that is the main sticking point in the negotiations.  Some members of the NTC are apparently reluctant even to consider talking about forming a new cabinet while significant areas of the country remain out of their control.

Battles are still raging in and around the Gaddafi strongholds of Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha.

NTC forces are struggling to make any inroads into the towns, which are being held by diehard supporters of the former dictator.

Furthermore, the friction between the leaders of the NTC is mirrored by infighting among their forces on the ground.

They are suffering increasing numbers of casualties, and despite reinforcements and a number of assaults on the pro-Gaddafi towns, they have been repeatedly repelled.  Some fighters complain they are confused; that they are receiving conflicting orders, suggesting the NTC is struggling to establish central co-ordinated command over the different regions.

Despite extra weapons and men being sent to the frontlines from further afield, many of the fighters are also concerned they are outgunned and outnumbered by an enemy that is dug-in, had time to prepare and has clearly hoarded an arsenal of heavy weapons.

The NTC is going to have to find a way of unifying its own members and fighters if it is to set an example for the rest of the country to pull together and work towards a more stable future.

Fighter Pilots Return To Libya As Heroes

Two Libyan fighter pilots who defected to Malta instead of bombing their own citizens have returned to Tripoli and a hero’s welcome.

The two men have spent the last six months in exile in Malta after refusing to fire on protesters in Benghazi last February.  As they stepped off a small Maltese air force plane onto the tarmac in Tripoli, their priority was the families they left behind to face the wrath of the Gaddafi regime.

Their names were given as Abdullah al Salheen and Ali al Rabti.  To cheers and hugs from friends and supporters, they were led away to be reunited with their loved ones.  Six months ago, the two men were scrambled in their French-built F1 Mirage planes as the demonstrations took hold in the early days of the uprising in the country’s east.

But just minutes before opening fire, they said they changed their minds and decided to defect abroad.  The move, which would have been a brave one in a democratic country, could have been a fatal one under Col Gaddafi’s regime.  Other pilots who defected around the same time were not so fortunate.

Two who fled to Algeria were sent back to Libya where the regime reportedly made an example of them – with a public execution.  The returning heroes from the Okba Bin Nafe airbase near Tripoli chose their host country wisely.  After flying just 200ft above the Mediterranean Sea to avoid radar detection, they came in to land at the main airport in Malta.  When they made contact with the radio tower both pilots claimed they had run out of fuel.  When they were taken into custody and questioned they revealed their true motives and requested political asylum – while staying in an air force officers’ mess.

Their bravery three days after the start of the revolution inspired thousands of fellow Libyans to raise their voices in revolt against the dictatorial regime.  Colonel Gaddafi’s most high-profile son, Saif al Islam, threatened “rivers of blood” if opposition to his father was not squashed.  Six months on, the fighter pilots have returned to what is being called a “free” Tripoli.

But Col Gaddafi’s supporters seem determined to make good on his son’s promise in the areas of Libya, such as their home town of Sirte, still under their control.

Chaos Reigns As Gaddafi Forces Fight Back

The rockets and mortars are relentless, dropping one after the other all around the northern edge of Bani Walid as the revolutionary forces try to advance.   The ambulances are not far behind, screeching back up the road to the north, towards the trauma bays in the small village beyond.  The incoming fire keeps the anti-Gaddafi fighters running and confuses an already chaotic battlefield.  The anti-Gaddafi soldiers launched their latest assault into one of the last of Gaddafi’s strongholds at around 7.30am.

Initially they made ground – advancing toward the centre. Some fighters on the outskirts said they had managed to seize a hotel and market square.  But every step forward is pushed back.

The terrain favours their enemy, and they have had weeks to build up defences and place their best marksmen on the hills overlooking the approaches.  Even as they edge forward into the scattering of hamlets in the valley, they are being outsmarted by Gaddafi’s well-trained soldiers.  One doctor who’s been treating the ever-increasing number of casualties told us the front ranks of the revolutionary fighters are being outflanked by snipers.  As they move in between the houses, they’re finding themselves completely surrounded – left with no way out as the bullets rain down.

The die-hard remnants of the old regime clearly intend to fight to the very end.  They are holding out, undaunted by the repeated Nato air strikes over the last two weeks.

Despite what Nato is calling an “intensive presence” over the area and the targeting of military hardware and positions, they still have an armoury of heavy weaponry which they are using to devastating effect.

At one of the checkpoints on the outskirts, the pressure is too much and an argument breaks out between the rebels.

When they launched their first attack into the city, they were optimistic it would all be over in days.

It’s now dawning on them it will take some time yet before the rebel flag is flying in the centre of Bani Walid.