Sky’s Checkpoint Challenge Inside Libya

When you are driving around Libya to various hotspots and stories, you inevitably find yourself negotiating checkpoint after checkpoint.

These are now manned predominantly by rebels – apart from a smattering of die-hard outposts in the pockets where pro-Gaddafi forces are still holding out.

When I was last in Libya earlier this year, Colonel Gaddafi was still firmly at the helm and resisting all calls to step down.

Even once the UN resolution was passed and the airstrikes started, his troops continued to man checkpoints flying loyalist green flags every few hundred metres on every road.

As “guests” of the colonel and his cronies, we travelled around in government buses, so were waved through officiously everywhere we went.

Passing through one or two on the outskirts of Tripoli now, you would be forgiven for thinking the checkpoints have not changed despite the revolution and the changing of the guard.

They are still a few hundred metres apart, manned by four or five men sporting varying degrees of uniform and an array of different weapons.

Now though, as free-moving journalists, we no longer get waved through respectfully and Col Gaddafi’s green has been replaced everywhere by the new red, black and green colours.

But it is more than that: where in Gaddafi days the checkpoints were dictatorially uniform, now each has its own flavour, style and welcome.

There is the ‘drive-through’, which boasts the most generous and warm of Libyan welcomes. Despite limited supplies of food, water and electricity the locals appear by the side of our minibus thrusting through the windows plates of watermelon, freshly fried up flatbreads and chilled bottles of water.

There follows an exchange of broken English on their part and very broken Arabic on ours, a few handshakes, smiles, Allah u Akbars and we are waved on our way.

Then there are the “jobsworth” checkpoints, where a local commander has moved on from the euphoria of a “new and free Libya” and discovered bureaucracy.

We usually roll up to one of these at midnight after a long day and an already very short night’s sleep in the offing, or when we are against the clock on a story deadline.

The checkpoint chief will refuse point blank to allow us to pass through, leaving us stranded at the side of the road. That is until a frantic call to one of our senior rebel contacts opens the road to us with apologies from the over-zealous commanders.

And there are the “road rage” checkpoints, where the stifling heat causes tempers to flare. As we are standing minding our own business, waiting to be ushered on our way, a scrap will break out between two rebels, two motorists, or one of each.

This would not be so bad if they were not all armed and far too eager to cock weapons and wave them around in every direction including ours. Not to mention when others add to the confusion by firing in the air, escalating the argument further.

But the most noticeable change on all these checkpoints compared to when I was here last is that people are actually talking to us – even if it is to tell us we do not have the right paperwork – rather than keeping their distance, with one eye on us and the other on our Gaddafi minders.

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‘Freedom Fighters’ Pull Back From Bani Walid

Four miles from the outskirts of Bani Walid, the men who are now calling themselves ‘Freedom Fighters’ have pulled back from the town, assaulted by the heavy rockets and artillery fire of the pro-Gaddafi forces.

We have finally been able to get to the front line proper – hindered until now by over-zealous ‘media handling’ by the anti-Gaddafi troops and their leaders.  The media convoy snaked its way south down the single lane tarmac road in whacky racers style.

The scenery is a wide expanse of orange dusty plains interspersed with craggy outcrops – reminiscent of old cowboy films. But it’s not the injuns firing at us – and their weapons are considerably more powerful.

To begin with it looks like we have arrived at a holding area for the fighters who have pulled back over the ridge and are preparing for their next surge forward.

Some of them tell us they are frustrated as they felt they were making progress; but they say the decision to pull back has come from on-high – a joint decision by the National Transitional Council and NATO.

As they wait for their next orders, they pass the time playing loud revolutionary music and firing anti-aircraft and AK47 rounds into the air, accompanied by a healthy dose of ‘Allah u Akbar!’

But it is not long before their shots are answered by incoming rounds whistling past our heads.

Journalists and fighters alike dive for cover as another volley crackles down. By this time the music has stopped and the party atmosphere around some of the anti-Gaddafi forces makes way for bossy orders for us to move out of the area.

Our team hops back in our trusty minibus and we move off down the road. A few hundred metres further on, we stop again only to find we are still in range of the rockets and artillery being fired out of Bani Walid.

So in between hasty camera shots of the crumps and billowing smoke, we move off down the road again.

From our next layby, we watch and listen to the familiar sound of planes circling overhead before loud explosions echo off the stony hills around us.

They have sent in the cavalry and the Allah u Akbars begin all over again.

Libya: More Bloodshed In Battle For Bani Walid

As convoys of anti-Gaddafi troops move forward towards Bani Walid, more bloodshed is predicted in the effort to take one of Muammar Gaddafi’s remaining strongholds.

At regular intervals, ambulances screech by in the opposite direction towards the clinic in the nearest village fifty kilometres away.

The reinforcements from the north started the day at the mosque, praying for victory in their hometown, before heading to the front line.

The National Transitional Council’s negotiator for the area, Abdullah Kenshil told us they have about 4,000 rebel fighters surrounding the collection of hamlets in the valley.

It is thought there are only around 50 die-hard Gaddafi supporters holed up in the area, but they have had time to prepare for what may well be their last stand.

When the fighters launched their assault on Friday evening, they faced difficult terrain and a barrage of heavy weaponry including rockets and artillery.

They claim their enemy is using residents’ houses as bases and firing points, making it almost impossible to fire back without risking the lives of civilians.

Abdullah Kenshil is optimistic they can take the town but says he is determined they will do it legally and while respecting human rights.

He has issued a directive to all troops, demanding: “You will not enter houses; you will not hurt the people. You will not fire in the air; prisoners will be captured and judged through the courts…”

But there is already tension between the different communities and leaders involved in the battle.

:: Pictures – Anti-Gaddafi Forces Close In On Bani Walid

The Bani Walid commanders refused to wait for the deadline imposed by Benghazi’s National Transitional Council but say the early attack was justified.

“They are inside the city, they are fighting with snipers. They forced this on us and it was in self-defence,” said Abdullah Kenshil.

And the people of Bani Walid are determined to claim this victory as theirs alone -reluctant to allow so-called ‘foreign’ fighters onto their land.

They are proud and historically very independent and they are keen to capture the “Big Fish” Abdullah Kenshil says is personally pulling the strings behind the fierce resistance in the town.

He is convinced Colonel Gaddafi himself is leading his men, alongside his former spokesman Moussa Ibrahim and at least two of his sons.

The rebel fighters have now reached the outskirts of Bani Walid. Their target, the Souk, or market place is two kilometres away.

But it may be some time before they claim the town and any Gaddafi prize within it.

And it will surely bring more of the bloodshed that they were so desperate to avoid.

Anti-Gaddafi Forces Pledge ‘No Bloodshed’

They’ve edged south from Tripoli for days, appealing to the people of Bani Walid for a peaceful resolution.

Now the celebratory gunfire is deafening as the rebels have got one step closer to ridding the Gaddafi stronghold of the deposed regime loyalists.

Thirty miles outside Bani Walid, the town’s elders came face to face with Abdullah Kenshil.

On the floor of the mosque, the main adviser to the National Transitional Council, a man born and bred in Bani Walid, appealed to the clan chiefs: “I know you will accept to join the rebels and stop the suffering of our people.”

In a deferential tone, he assured them that the rebels did not want any more bloodshed but a peaceful and united Libya: “Bani Walid is an important piece of Libyan history – we are not here to tell you what to do or to judge you.

“We will not enter any houses or harm anyone.

“We have a message for our sons in Bani Walid who are carrying weapons – we will do what the prophet Mohammed did; he was good to the people who killed his companions and forced him to leave his hometown.”

To cheers from around the room and chants of Allah u Akbar, the NTC’s prime minister Mahmoud Jabril, reinforced that message on the phone from Benghazi: “This is a key moment for the town, we should not squander this opportunity; and only a judge and the courts can decide the fate of the people who are carrying weapons against us.”

It’s unclear how many Gaddafi loyalists are still holed up in Bani Walid.

Until very recently the rebels had claimed former regime spokesman Moussa Ibrahim and two of Gaddafi’s sons were still moving in and around the town.

Now they say they may have fled, taking away what little leadership the die-hard Gaddafi fighters had left in the area.

It’s been days since Bani Walid had electricity or water and they’re running out of food and medical supplies.

The town’s elders talked of engineers on standby to repair the infrastructure and lines of communication; they talked of medical supplies and staff waiting to get the call to travel in from Tripoli.

Their message is clear: they want a peaceful transition and a chance for life to get back to normal for the ordinary people of Bani Walid.

With Abdullah Kenshil’s promise in hand, they now need to convince them that, contrary to the Gaddafi rhetoric broadcast to the town by loud speaker, the rebels will be true to their word.

Fighters In Football Shirts Ready For Battle

Until two weeks ago, the big stone building on the outskirts of Misratah was a bustling market place.

Now its corridors are empty, the counters covered in official documents and anti-aircraft shells lie on the floor.

The storerooms have been turned into a makeshift headquarters as the anti-Gaddafi forces have moved their operations hub closer to their next target – the Colonel Gaddafi strongholds of Bani Walid and Sirte.

It is from here that the regional commander Ali Bashir coordinates troop movements over the radio. He told us they are ready and that he expected the operation to be launched in the next few days.

The former army colonel was once hand-picked to travel to Tunisia on a visit with Col Gaddafi.

He said that when he saw that his leader was prepared to use foreign fighters to kill fellow Libyans he gave up his rank, pay and status and moved back to Misratah in disgust.

“I chose my way. I chose my family. I am now working for my village,” he said.

Less than a hundred kilometres south of here is Bani Walid – the cluster of villages in which Col Gaddafi is thought to be hiding.

The Misratah Brigade – instrumental in the fall of Col Gaddafi’s Bab al Aziziyah Palace in Tripoli – have regrouped near their home town and set up camp in the desert.

Ali Bashir showed us around the pick-up trucks loaded with guns while sentries kept watch from the high ground overlooking the road south. They said they were ready to advance up the road when they receive word.

As we head back to his headquarters, Ali Bashir says he wishes this could have happened sooner.

He said that it is too late for him but that at least he would be leaving a new Libya for generations to come.

He has inspired many from the next generation to join him on the front line.

Wearing AC Milan t-shirts and manning the machine guns, the young men patrol out into no-man’s land and scour the countryside for advancing pro-Gaddafi forces.

Muad Taher, a 22-year-old student from Misratah, said he picked up a weapon as soon as Col Gaddafi’s forces descended on the tow.

“We had to defend ourselves, it was our duty,” he said.

“We had to protect our own. Gaddafi’s forces have done damage, they steal and kill.”

Looking out across the flat stretch of land between the camp and Bani Walid, he admitted they do not expect it to be easy:

“It would be nice if it was like Tripoli, we do not like bloodshed – these are our brothers and sisters,” he said.

But he and his fellow fighers said thoughts of violence would not put them off their ultimate aim.

Sami, 21, was shot by a sniper during the fall of Bab al Aziziyah, but – arm in a sling – he has taken up his position alongside his friends.

They have all volunteered to join the rebel movement and believe they will not really be free until they catch Col Gaddafi.

If he is holed up just a few kilometres away in Bani Walid, they may soon get their wish.