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Bani Walid under government control, defence minister says

Libya's Defence Minister Osama Juili said Wednesday that Muammar Gaddafi's former stronghold of Bani Walid was under government control after sporadic clashes between rival militias. Juili denied reports that Gaddafi loyalists were behind the unrest.


AFP - Libyan Defence Minister Osama Juili said Wednesday that the oasis town of Bani Walid was under government control as he toured the former Moamer Kadhafi bastion days after deadly clashes.

"The town is in the control of the Libyan government," Juili told AFP. "The problem that started has been resolved," he said, referring to the violence on Monday in which at least five people died.

Bani Walid was the penultimate town to fall to Libya's new government during last year's uprising and local officials had said that Kadhafi loyalists among its residents were behind the unrest.

But Juili denied that during Wednesday's visit.

"The fighting was not between thwar and Kadhafi diehards," he said referring to militia groups composed of former rebels.

"It was an internal problem... It was between two groups of young men. One of them was the May 28 Brigade," he said referring to an ex-rebel formation in the town.

Bani Walid was a longtime recruitment ground for elite troops of Kadhafi's armed forces and was captured in October last year, just days before the ousted dictator was killed in the fall of his hometown Sirte.

But an AFP correspondent saw no evidence of Kadhafi loyalism in the town on Wednesday. A dozen flags were flying in the red, black and green of the new Libya. None were seen in the green of Kadhafi's regime.

Groups of school children waited for buses as life returned to normal in the town.

The AFP correspondent saw no roadblocks inside the town despite the defence minister's visit.

Local officials said this week's clashes began with an attack by Kadhafi loyalists on a base of former rebels, a claim denied by Interior Minister Fawzi Abdelali late on Monday.

A member of the powerful Zintan Brigade, which helped capture Bani Walid from the old regime, had said that the minister was in the town to negotiate with Kadhafi loyalists.

"The defence minister is there, he's negotiating and we will find a solution to the problem. If not, we are ready to fight," Abdullah al-Mahdi told AFP.

"I think the town is under the control of Kadhafi supporters."

Bani Walid resident Abdel Hamid Rahim, who was leaving the town for the capital Tripoli 170 kilometres (110 miles) to the northwest, said there was an uneasy calm.

"The situation is calm today, but you could call it the calm before the storm," he told AFP.

Journalists accompanying the minister were kept at a checkpoint about 60 kilometres (35 miles) outside Bani Walid for two hours, with the former rebels citing "the dangerous situation" in the town.

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