NORTHERN GATE OF BANI WALID, Libya, Sept 13 (Reuters) - Wary of alienating a powerful local tribe, fighters backing Libya’s new rulers are urging families to leave the besieged town of Bani Walid before resorting to full-scale military force to take one of Muammar Gaddafi’s last strongholds.
The drawn-out standoff at the town — home of Libya’s biggest tribe, the Warfalla — has turned the obscure oasis 150 km (90 miles) south of Tripoli into a new flashpoint in the North African nation’s seven-month-long war.
Libya’s new rulers are keen to bring the stubborn town into the fold as quickly as possible but have hesitated to employ heavy-handed tactics that could estrange the Warfalla and derail their efforts to create an all-inclusive government.
National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters at the northern gate of the city said they were giving civilians two more days to leave Bani Walid before mounting a full-scale assault. A radio address transmitted from the nearby town of Tarhouna was appealing to people to leave to safer areas, fighters said.
“We don’t want to kill anyone. We do not want to turn them into enemies,” said Abumuslim Abdu, an anti-Gaddafi fighter, his chest criss-crossed with ammunition belts.
“We are under orders from our commanders to proceed very carefully and avoid harming civilians.”
Along with Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast and the loyalist bastion of Sabha deep in the Sahara, Bani Walid is one of the last pockets of Gaddafi resistance.
Die-hard loyalists of the fugitive leader have put up stiffer than expected resistance, firing rockets and mortars from inside Bani Walid and deploying snipers in the town centre.
Fighters and residents said Gaddafi forces in the town centre still had plenty of support among local households who are defiantly flying Gaddafi’s green flags above their homes.
Their cars and trucks loaded with sacks of personal belongings, families have poured out of Bani Walid, a scattering of sun-scorched houses spread around a terrain of rocky hills and valleys.
“Those Gaddafi fighters inside the city are not soldiers,” Aburaz al Furjari, who left his shop behind to flee to Tripoli. “They are local loyalists who received guns from Gaddafi.”
NTC fighters estimated that about half of Bani Walid’s families had escaped north towards Tripoli as well as towards the coastal city of Misrata, but many Gaddafi supporters had stayed behind.
After Tripoli’s relatively quick fall last month, Bani Walid’s fierce resistance has been a mystery even to local fighters. Residents say many people in the Warfalla tribe fear retribution because of their traditionally close links to Gaddafi’s tribe.
“For many years the Warfalla have had a special connection to Gaddafi’s clan. He gave them money, cars, houses in return for their support,” said Addiladim Azzarog, a Bani Walid resident fleeing with his family to Tripoli.
“It’s a very strong connection. They have always sided with Gaddafi.”
A difficult local terrain, different from the flat desert that defines many other parts of Libya, has contributed to the lack of NTC progress at Bani Walid.
Sitting at the crossroads of transport routes south of Tripoli, Bani Walid is perched on the slopes of a sprawling valley criss-crossed by steep and narrow gullies, making any advance from the outside difficult and slow.
For now, Libyan national army troops and local anti-Gaddafi brigades are massing outside Bani Walid, waiting for orders to push forward.
At a checkpoint on the edge of the city built around an old Gaddafi-era guest house, bored soldiers chased around a donkey from a nearby farm shouting, “Gaddafi go away!”
Sitting on rugs spread out on the ground, some played with a pet scorpion kept inside an ammunition box. Poking it with a 14mm bullet from anti-aircraft gun, one fighter, Omar, said: “We will soon catch Gaddafi, too.” (Editing by Barry Malone and Giles Elgood)