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.

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.

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.

‘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.