Civilians flee Bani Walid, NTC forces gear up for battle

In the space of a few hours on Tuesday, a road used by Libyan families fleeing impending fighting was packed with tanks, trucks and ambulances: the NTC forces are gearing up for battle.

The final checkpoint operated by National Transitional Council fighters, some 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the pro-Gaddafi bastion of Bani Walid, served as both a junction for those leaving the town, and for those looking to capture it.

"We are preparing for the big battle tomorrow," said Jamal Tomzini, clothed in jeans and a white T-shirt with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, voicing his determination to take revenge for the NTC forces' failed assault on the town over the weekend.

"We tried to make a breakthrough on Sunday, but it was very difficult," he continued, raising his voice to avoid being drowned out by a nearby mosque's call to prayer.

On Sunday, NTC fighters paid a heavy price for their failed assault: poor coordination between brigades from the west of Libya meant they had to abandon control of Bani Walid airport, with 17 killed and more than 80 wounded in clashes with loyalists of ousted strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Combat in Bani Walid has been put on hold since then, with the interval being used to try to unify the ranks.

But the military command says that on Wednesday, it will resume its efforts to take control of the town, 170 kilometres (105 miles) southeast of Tripoli and where they believe Seif al-Islam, Gaddafi's most prominent son, is staying.

With control of Gaddafi's coastal hometown of Sirte on the verge of transferring to NTC forces, Bani Walid looks set to be the final bastion of the deposed regime.

Fighters loyal to Libya's new administration have for a month been announcing large-scale operations against Bani Walid, but with little follow-up.

Dozens of families took advantage of the relative calm in Bani Walid on Tuesday to flee the oasis, with mattresses and suitcases piled into and on top of their cars.

"We hear that there will be fighting. In the town, there is no doctor, no water, no electricity," said a man in a white Mitsubishi that also carried four veiled women.

He said there were "more than 20,000" civilians still holed up in Bani Walid.

"There are mercenaries and militia in the streets," said the man, who was taking his family to Nasmah, west of the town, where there is a camp for those displaced by the fighting.

Behind him, a child pressed her face against the window of the car, clearly frightened by the the deafening noise of fighters training nearby, launching rockets and bursts of machinegun fire into the desert.

A few hundred metres (yards) from the checkpoint where a dozen tanks stood ready, a team of young doctors turned a number of disused buildings into a de facto field hospital, in preparation for the upcoming battle.

"We are preparing to treat the wounded to provide them emergency care before transferring them to other hospitals with better facilities in the area or in Tripoli," said Aimen Ben Salam, a medical intern, who added that this was not his first battlefield.

"We will stay until the end of the fighting, and then we will move forward with the troops," he said. "Inshallah (God willing), the final stop will be in the centre of Bani Walid."

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