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.

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.

‘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.