TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Pro-government Libyan militiamen traded fire with fighters defending a former stronghold of the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi on Thursday as families fled for their lives, medical officials and militia members said.
Officials said that at least six people died and 80 were wounded on Wednesday, the first day of renewed fighting at Bani Walid, some 140 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Tripoli. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. They had no figures for casualties from Thursday's clashes.
Violence has flared periodically over the last year at Bani Walid, the most significant town in Libya that continues to resist the control of the rebels who overthrew Gadhafi in October 2011 and subsequently formed the country's new government.
Fighters of the pro-government Libya Shield militia had besieged the town for several weeks, blaming residents for the death of a well-known anti-Gadhafi rebel. On Wednesday, saying that negotiations to hand over the suspects in the killing had failed, they launched a mortar and artillery barrage and a ground assault.
Libya's military says negotiations continue amid the fighting. Chief of Staff Gen. Youssef Mangoush told reporters in Tripoli that his forces will enter the town "after reaching a consensus among all parties" but warned that if his forces came under fire, "they have the right of self-defense."
"The people of Bani Walid will welcome our force because it represents the state," he added. The Defense Ministry meanwhile urged residents to hand over fighters who allegedly taking part in killings during and after the war.
Meanwhile, dozens of pick-up trucks mounted with heavy weapons headed out of Tripoli toward Bani Walid to reinforce the siege.
Bani Walid has changed hands twice in the last year. Rebels captured it last October at the end of the eight month civil war, but fighters loyal to the dictator shortly afterward rose up and expelled them, along with pro-rebel residents. There was an uneasy standoff that ended when Omran Shaaban, a rebel hailed as the fighter who caught Gadhafi, was reportedly kidnapped and killed by Bani Walid residents.
Bani Walid residents contacted by phone say they fear looting if the town falls again.
Libya is still building a national army and transitional authorities depended heavily on ex-rebel forces such as Libya Shield to secure the country.
However, the armed groups have clashed among themselves and one hardline Islamist militia has been linked to the September attack on the U.S. Consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi, fueling an anti-militia backlash.
The government says that it is outlawing particularly troublesome militias and appointing commanders to posts to rein in others. But many Libyans are skeptical that the fighters will accept central government authority.