CAIRO — Forces loyal to Libya’s interim government were violently expelled Monday from a town long seen as supportive of Moammar Gadhafi, a local militia leader said Tuesday. The assault left at least four combatants dead and raised the specter of renewed conflict between revolutionary forces and those supportive of the old order.
The town, Bani Walid, and its dominant Warfalla tribe long benefited from Gadhafi’s rule. Bani Walid provided shelter to his son Seif al-Islam after rebel forces drove the ruling family from the capital, Tripoli, in August, and it was one of the last strongholds to fall to rebel forces, in October.
That history, combined with what appeared to be a significant retreat by forces loyal to the interim National Transitional Council, sparked fears of a new pro-Gadhafi element that was both armed and organized.
But both local fighters and security officials from the transitional council denied that pro-Gadhafi forces had been involved. Each side said the roots of the violence were more local than counterrevolutionary.
“There is nothing about Gadhafi supporters or militias here. The problem is between tribes,” said Salem Dabnon al-Waer, 47, who described himself as commander of the Bani Walid fighters.
He said the dispute had begun when fighters from the May 28 Brigade, a rival militia aligned with the transitional council, “kidnapped” a local man over the weekend, then spurned an attempt by a council of town elders to negotiate his release.
In retaliation, al-Waer said, his fighters attacked the rival militia’s base Monday in an assault that, he said, killed a total of 10 fighters on both sides and wounded 12. A Human Rights Watch worker who left Bani Walid on Tuesday put the death toll at four.
Gen. Abdel-Salam al-Hassi, chief of operations for the government’s Defense Ministry, said, “These are only local clashes between people because of very, very, very simple reasons.”
He described the spark for the clashes as a leadership contest within Bani Walid’s military council.
“There are no Gadhafi regime forces involved, absolutely none,” Hassi said, adding, “It was a challenge on that level, but everyone has a weapon, so it leads to fighting.”
By Tuesday night, militias loyal to the National Transitional Council had taken up positions around three sides of Bani Walid at a distance of at least 40 miles. Fighters from the May 28 Brigade had withdrawn about 55 miles to the town of Sdada, according to the Human Rights Watch worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Hassi denied that forces loyal to the transitional council had retreated from Bani Walid but said units of the Libyan military were on their way to provide reinforcements. Libya’s military is a weak institution composed of little more than ragtag militias, and many other militias reject its authority.