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.

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.