ZLITEN, Libya — Thousands of Libya's rebel fighters surrounded Bani Walid Monday and were poised to attack the town, one of the last centers held by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.
The rebels held back on a direct assault on Bani Walid because they hoped to avoid a bloody battle for the town.
Bani Walid is one of the last four towns that are still held by force loyal to Gaddafi. The other towns include Gaddafi's hometown Sirte, Sabha.
Rebel leaders in Tripoli said they must capture all those towns and assert control over all of Libya and capture Gaddafi before starting the actual transition to democracy, according to AP. Only then would they begin an eight-month process to elect a national assembly, draft a constitution and then hold general elections.
Meanwhile, an armed convoy of at least 50 vehicles drove across the Libyan desert and crossed over the southern desert border into Niger. Niger's foreign minister said that Gaddafi is not in the convoy. The new Libyan authorities charge that the convoy is carrying gold and money.
Libya's rebel forces are on edge here in Zliten, 43 miles (70 kilometers) north of Bani Walid. They don't know if or when they will attack the town.
They say they are still waiting for the population in Bani Walid to rise up before they push in, accordin to Safe Al Afi, a local military commander in charge of rebel forces that will move on the embattled town.
He said this is what the rebels hope for, because it would mean a less bloody battle than a direct assault by the rebels. He also added that his intelligence puts conditions inside the city as very bad. Citizens are without food and water.
The trigger point could come from rebels on the outskirts of Bani Walid without the formal approval of the National Transitional Council (NTC). Al Afi added that the NTC gave the armed rebels the prerogative to move on Bani Walid at their discretion.
Local rebels in Zliten said Gaddafi’s son Saif Al Islam had been seen in Bani Walid this week. Gaddafi was also reported to be in Bani Walid several days ago but now the rebels are convinced he has fled there, according to Zliten’s military commander, Ramadan Hadia, 49, a former Gaddafi captain who defected early in the six-month revolution. He said he’s 90 percent sure that Gaddafi is not in Libya. But he said there is a high probability that some of his sons are in Bani Walid.
Zliten, a city 85 miles (140 kilometers) east of Tripoli, has seen some of the most murderous violence of the Libyan revolution. Neighborhoods divided between rebels and loyalists, with neighbors capturing, torturing and killing neighbors.
Now the former terrorized rebels are holding captive the very men who captured them months ago. There is an uneasy balance between justice and revenge, over what to do with the more than 300 accused now held in the overcrowded, local prison.
At the start of the revolt against Gaddafi in February, rebels in Zliten were quickly suppressed, assassinated and rounded up in prisons, mainly because the city was one of Gaddafi's bases of operations to fight the larger, rebellious city of Misrata 24 miles (40 kilometers) east.
The majority of the men killed in the now infamous massacre in the Khamis Brigade headquarters in Tripoli, first revealed on Aug. 26, were from Zliten. Locals said some 80 men were shot and their bodies burned there. Only about 15 managed to escape.
Fahti Abdu Hari, 20, a young rebel from Zliten said he was driving in his neighborhood with his friend Osama on Aug. 19. A car pulled up alongside them at the cross street, men got out and grabbed them. Fahti knew the loyalists who took him. They were also from Zliten.
The loyalists found a rebel ID and a machine gun in Osama’s car. They took Fahti and Osama blindfolded to a makeshift camp, one of many torture centers in the city. They were beaten by the loyalists.
“Confess, and we’ll release you,” the torturer told Fahti. When Fahti hesitated, he was told to admit to being a rebel or be killed. He heard another man being beaten and shot while he was blindfolded.
When he was left alone, he began to yell for help. A passerby decided to try to help him. He went in the tent and released Fahti, but then reconsidered and tried to tie him back up, but Fathi said he pushed the man and ran for his freedom.
Today Fahti sat in the prison administration offices looking like a fashionable young man with jell in his hair. He faced one of them men who captured him.
When Salem entered the administration center, one could smell his fear. Salem* (full names not given to protect identity of the prisoners), another young man with long hair, looked ashen to face Fahti and a room full of rebels who had been imprisoned or had lost family members and who were now in charge of his fate.
“I was trying to help you,” Salem said but he was quickly drowned out by shouts. He claimed this, even though he had been in the vehicle that captured Fahti. Salem and Fahti live less than one mile from each other in Zliten.
Some of the witnesses said Salem was carrying a gun the night he captured Fahti. Salem denied it. But other witnesses said he’d been spotted in a loyalist military vehicle as part of the group that re-took the center of Zliten when the crackdown on protesters began on February 22.
Fahti said he didn’t know how to feel about Salem now. “I have mixed feelings,” he said. "Salem was with the men that took me, but he didn’t put his hands on me," Fahti added. Salem refused to say why he joined the loyalists.
Salem’s denials were not uncommon among the hundreds of men who are now in rebel hands in the overcrowded ex-Gaddafi prison across the street. The prisoners spilled out into the humid courtyard inside the jail— the very young and old, the black and Arab.
Many of the soldiers were teenagers and in their early twenties from loyalist areas like Sirte and Sabha, who said they were offered money and told to defend their country from gangs. The young soldiers said they never participated in actual fighting.
More intriguing were the other loyalists from Zliten. Abdul Hamid was accused of assisting his brother who was known to be heavily involved in capturing rebels in Zliten. Abdul Hamid didn’t deny that his brother was a loyalist involved in captures, nor that he lived with his brother on their farm, but says he did nothing wrong.
A witness captured on his brother’s farm said he heard a man being beaten to death there. But he couldn’t confirm that Abdul Hamid was actually involved in the beatings. He was blindfolded. The witness said he thought it was probable that Abdul Hamid was involved.
Another accused named Bashir, admitted he was a driver of a loyalist anti-aircraft truck. Bashir was accused of shooting up a house, which he denied. He said he joined Gaddafi’s force because his friends had joined, but he now regretted it. He said he gave himself up to the rebel forces and gave names of other loyalists to help.
“I’m just a driver,” he said, his head bandaged, which he said was caused by slipping in the bathroom. “I feel sorry, I didn’t kill anybody. Whatever God and justice wants, I hope to be free,” Bashir said.
Inside the prison, a local coffee shop owner said he didn’t know why he was captured. He said he didn’t have any guns.
“There’s people here they put in a solitary place ... they hit them. Why? They say because Mr. Gaddafi did it to us. If want you to change things, then why do you do that? Nothing’s changed. They (the rebels) torture, they don’t give good food. Nothing. It’s the same thing.”
The rebels in Zliten deny they are out for blood. Osama Salem Ghadi, 24, is one of the few to escape the massacre at the Khamis Brigade. He fears his father and brother died in the massacre. “These people need to be put to justice to see if [they] committed crimes or not. The law will take its role.”
No court process has yet been established to press charges and put to trial the accused loyalist prisoners. It's clear that Libya's transition to democracy is going to be long and difficult process.