BANI WALID, Libya – Forces loyal to ousted Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi put up fierce resistance Friday on two separate fronts, fending off revolutionary fighters trying to take a pair of holdout cities that have defied the nation’s new transitional government.
Anti-Gadhafi troops launched major attacks on both Sirte, the coastal town where Gadhafi was born, and Bani Walid, a desert city that benefited from the longtime leader’s financial largesse. But in both cases the attackers’ predictions of quick and decisive victories proved illusory.
At day’s end, Libya’s new rulers were facing the disturbing prospect of potentially protracted and bloody battles to oust Gadhafi loyalists from the two towns.
The revolution that seemed sealed with last month’s stunning victory in Tripoli, the capital, is now clearly facing a major obstacle in the two contested cities and a third pro-Gadhafi stronghold, the city of Sabha in the south.
While in hiding, Gadhafi has urged his followers to mount a guerrilla war. His spokesman, also in hiding, has vowed that loyalists would turn Libya into “a true hell.”
Snipers, mortars and rocket fire met fighters who attempted to storm the two cities, both of which had pre-conflict populations of about 100,000. Many residents have fled amid weeks-long sieges cutting off both towns.
In Bani Walid, about 95 miles southeast of Tripoli, the day began with hundreds of volunteers driving toward the city in pickups turned into gun trucks, exuding confidence that they soon would reach the town center and defeat its defenders.
But heavy resistance from Gadhafi loyalists slowed the fighters’ advance. They crouched behind dun-colored buildings and struggled in intense street fighting to move forward amid mortar fire and sniper rounds. The pro-Gadhafi forces were poised to pick off the interlopers from strategic sniper positions inside buildings and on the town’s high ground.
“Once we got into town, the bullets seemed to be coming from everywhere,” said one fighter from Tripoli, Nabil Drawil, who said his unit advanced about 200 yards into Bani Walid before withdrawing under heavy fire.
At least six anti-Gadhafi fighters were killed and several dozen injured in the Bani Walid offensive, doctors said.
By nightfall, the forces poised to take Bani Walid earlier in the day were in a full-throttle retreat, speeding out of town in trucks as occasional shells from loyalist forces inside Bani Walid fell nearby.
At Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast almost 300 miles east of Tripoli, a massive force of several thousand troops and hundreds of fighting vehicles – including a handful of tanks – advanced on the town most symbolically linked to Gadhafi. But here too resistance was intense, blunting hopes of a swift victory.
At least 13 anti-Gadhafi fighters were reported killed and more than a dozen injured in fighting in Sirte, a transitional government spokesman said Friday.
There was no definitive word on casualties among civilians and pro-Gadhafi defenders in Sirte and Bani Walid.