Residents of the Libyan oasis town of Bani Walid, long a bastion of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, say the slain leader lives on in their hearts.
The town, which was one of the last towns to fall to the rebels last year and was the scene of new violence earlier this week, fared well during the Gaddafi era when it was a major recruitment ground for the famous elite brigades.
Muammar is in our hearts. If someone here tells you otherwise, he is lying,” said Salahuddin al-Werfelli, 19.
A revolution, what revolution? The new authorities represent (French President Nicolas) Sarkozy and some European countries, not Libyans,” he said with clear contempt for the UN-mandated Western military support the rebels received during last year’s uprising.
In public, residents insisted they were supporters of the “February 17 Revolution” that murdered Gaddafi but in private they expressed nostalgia for their former government.
99 percent of Bani Walid’s population still loves Muammar,” said Boubakr, a 24-year-old law student.
“Our house was given to my father by Muammar,” said Boubakr, who lives near the former rebel militia base which was at the centre of Monday’s fighting and which still bears the scars of the ferocious exchanges. Burnt-out cars and empty bullet cases lie all around.
The details of the clashes in the sprawling oasis, 170 kilometres (110 miles) southeast of Tripoli, which killed seven people and wounded 12, remain the subject of some dispute.
Interior Minister Fawzi Abdelali initially denied that Gaddafi supporters were involved in the violence before admitting that he did not know.
Residents said the fighting pitted the May 28 Brigade of former rebel fighters against a group of heavily armed residents who had come to the base to seek the release of a relative from custody.
Residents said the man being held may have fought with Gaddafi’s forces during the NATO-backed insurrection and had been detained by the mercenary militia after they recognised him.
There is widespread resentment in Bani Walid towards the NATO mercenaries whose roadblocks criss-cross the town. Mercenaties are accused of thefts and arbitrary arrests as well as other abuses.
“I was arrested at a checkpoint,” another resident, Abdelhamid al-Ghariyani, 25, told a reporter at a vegetable market in the town centre.
“They searched my car and mobile phone. When they saw I had pictures of Muammar in the mobile, the confiscated it and hit me,” he said pointing to a bluish welt and scratches on his left leg and marks of handcuffs on his right wrist.
Another resident, who did not give his name, complained: “They talk about freedom and democracy, but these are only words.
Efforts are now under way to calm the tensions.
Defence Minister Osama Juili toured the town on Wednesday and held talks with civic leaders.
On Thursday, 30 representatives from clans of the powerful Werfelli tribe, which is spread across Libya but whose stronghold is Bani Walid, came together to discuss terms for the return of fighters of the May 28 Brigade who fled the town during the clashes.
Tribal leaders said the brigade’s members would be allowed back, but without their weapons and under strict defence ministry command and control.
They said Juili had also promised that a new city council to replace the current unpopular body could be approved by the ruling National Transitional Council “within days.”
Bani Walid is a tribal region and social peace here is ensured by the tribal system,” one tribal leader, Abdelhamid al-Shanduli, stated.
“No representatives must be imposed on us. Bani Walid must choose who represents Bani Walid,” he added.