By Emma Farge and Maria Golovnina
By Emma Farge and Maria Golovnina
September 19, 2011, BENGHAZI/BANI WALID, Libya (Reuters)
Fugitive ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s loyalists said on Monday they had captured 17 mercenaries — some British and French — in what would amount to a sharp setback for the country’s new rulers and their international backers.
The claim by Gaddafi spokesman Moussa Ibrahim could not be verified but comes at a time when the new authorities are facing stark reversals on the battlefield and in the political arena.
One month after Gaddafi was driven from power, his loyalists have beaten back repeated assaults by National Transitional Council forces at the town of Bani Walid and defied attempts to seize Gaddafi’s home city of Sirte. The failed attempts to seize pro-Gaddafi bastions have sent NTC fighters fleeing in disarray.
The NTC, still based in the eastern city of Benghazi, has faced questions about whether it can unify a country deeply divided on tribal and local lines. A long-promised attempt to set up a more inclusive interim government fell apart overnight.
“A group was captured in Bani Walid consisting of 17 mercenaries. They are technical experts and they include consultative officers,” Gaddafi spokesman Ibrahim said on Syria-based Arrai television, which has backed the ousted leader.
“Most of them are French, one of them is from an Asian country that has not been identified, two English people and one Qatari.”
The French foreign ministry said it had no information about the report. The British foreign ministry said it was aware of media reports about the capture of mercenaries but was not able to substantiate them. Qatari officials were not immediately available for comment.
NATO, which is staging air strikes on Gaddafi loyalist positions, says it has no troops on the ground in Libya. However, Western nations have sent special forces in the past, and media have reported that private security firms have aided anti-Gaddafi forces in training, targetting and with leadership.
The interim government’s attempts to seize Bani Walid, 150 km (95 miles) southeast of Tripoli have become a debacle, with forces repeatedly surging into the town only to be driven out by its pro-Gaddafi defenders.
On Monday, NTC forces were unable to approach the northern gate to attack the town because of heavy gunfire from Gaddafi loyalists.
Fighters said on Sunday that they had planned for tanks and pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers to lead an attack, but foot soldiers had instead piled in first, only to be driven out.
“There is a lack of organisation so far. Infantry men are running in all directions,” said Zakaria Tuham, a senior fighter with a Tripoli-based unit.
Some fighters openly disobeyed orders. In one incident, an officer from Bani Walid was heckled by troops from Tripoli after he tried to order them to stop randomly shooting in the air as they celebrated seizing a mortar from Gaddafi forces.
NTC forces and NATO warplanes also attacked Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace. Fighters launched rockets from the city’s southern entrance and traded fire with Gaddafi loyalists holed up in a conference centre.
“The situation is very dangerous. There are so many snipers and all the types of weapons you can imagine,” said fighter Mohamed Abdullah as rockets whooshed through the air and black smoke rose above the city.
As in many episodes during Libya’s conflict, the front lines at Sirte and Bani Walid have moved back and forth, with shows of bravado crumbling in the reality of battle.
In Benghazi, interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril failed to name a new cabinet when his proposals did not receive full backing from all current members.
“We have agreed on a number of portfolios. We still have more portfolios to be discussed,” Jibril told reporters at a news conference on Sunday.
A list of the approved ministries was not available, though sources familiar with the negotiations said that the position of Jibril himself was a sticking point during the talks.
There was also disagreement about whether it was necessary to form a transitional government before declaring Libya “liberated,” which NTC officials say can only happen when remaining Gaddafi loyalists are defeated.
(Additional reporting by William MacLean and Joseph Logan in Tripoli, Sherine El Madany east of Sirte, Alexander Dziadosz in Benghazi, Barry Malone and Sylvia Westall in Tunis and Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck in Brussels; Writing by Sylvia Westall and Peter Graff, editing by Peter Millership)