Last week, after weeks of shelling, the militias said they had cleared Bani Walid and the government declared an end to the fighting, inviting those who had fled the violence to go back. But the militias defied the government’s orders and barred their return for more than a week, relenting only on Wednesday, when residents began trickling back to a battered town with no electricity or running water.
The still-tense situation in Bani Walid, about 100 miles southeast of Tripoli, underscores just how little control Libya’s central government wields over even its most loyal militias, which are being called on to provide security and maintain order across the country. But it also illustrates the deepening divide between the winners and losers of last year’s revolution.
Residents of Bani Walid, members of the Warfallah tribe that populated many of the old regime’s highest posts, said there were no prominent regime figures in their town, despite earlier claims by the militias that they had captured former Gaddafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim and killed Gaddafi’s son Khamis there. Tripoli later acknowledged that those claims were probably false.
Rather, the town’s residents said the attack fell in line with a larger pattern of discrimination and harassment that Warfallah and other loyalist tribes had suffered since Gaddafi’s fall.
For nearly 10 months, people who live in Bani Walid said they had operated with relative autonomy. A pro-government militia known as the May 28th brigade had briefly seized control at the end of last year but was forced out by a more popular local militia, they said.
But things changed in the summer when local fighters captured Omran Shaban, a fighter from Misurata, a city on the Mediterranean coast. Shaban had become a national hero after he found Gaddafi hiding in a drainage pipe in Sirte in October 2011.
Shaban died in Paris on Sept. 24, succumbing to injuries that his family said were inflicted through torture and gunshots during two months of detention in Bani Walid. Several residents of Bani Walid, interviewed this week, refused to discuss Shaban’s case.
His death prompted the government, the next day, to authorize the offensive on Bani Walid. But it was Misurata’s militias, allied with the local May 28th brigade, that led the assault and then blocked the residents’ return, according to members of parliament, the country’s acting defense minister and locals.
On Monday, the acting defense minister told reporters that the state had no power over the situation.
Residents of Bani Walid agreed. “The government has no control over these militias,” said Hassan Sultan, who fled last week with his family to the nearby town of Tarhouna. Sultan said that the militias were taking revenge on those who had been loyal to the Gaddafi regime and that he feared they might continue their assaults. “There’s a rumor that Tarhouna is next,” he said.