WADI DINAR, Libya (AP) — Pro-government militias battled fighters in a former stronghold of the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi on Sunday, the fifth straight day of clashes that have killed at least 30 people.
The fighting in Bani Walid, some 140 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Tripoli, has overlapped with the anniversary of Gadhafi's capture and killing on Oct. 20, 2011. A year since his death brought an end to Libya's civil war, Bani Walid is the most significant city in the country to still resist the nation's new authorities.
A resident said Sunday by telephone that pro-government militias and fighters in the city were clashing on its outskirts. The resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said there were reports of new casualties, but that the fighting was less intense than a day earlier.
In Tripoli, some two hundred protesters demonstrated in front of the parliament building to urge the end of the fighting, which they say is harming only civilians. The demonstration was dispersed by a massive show of force when army units pulled up and opened fire above the heads of the crowd with heavy weaponry.
Government forces near Bani Walid said there were no civilians in the conflict area, and they had helped evacuate hundreds of residents a day earlier.
The official LANA news agency said at least 22 pro-government militiamen were killed during clashes Saturday. Pro-government militiamen said most of the casualties came during an ambush by fighters in the besieged city.
A spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement on Sunday that Ban was alarmed by the growing number of civilian casualties and calling on Libyan authorities and those in Bani Walid to begin resolving the stand-off peacefully.
"In their historic July elections, the Libyan people put their trust in the Libyan state, and the Secretary-General urges all Libyans to work together to strengthen the legitimacy and effectiveness of state institutions across the country," the statement said.
The violence Saturday coincided with conflicting reports about whether security forces had arrested Gadhafi's former spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, in Bani Walid.
The government said its forces had apprehended Ibrahim, but never produced evidence to support its statement. Then an audio recording purportedly by Ibrahim surfaced on the Internet denying that he had been arrested or that he was even in Libya.
The reports of Ibrahim's alleged arrest sparked brief celebrations in the Libyan capital. But in a reflection of the persistent lack of confidence in the new authorities, Libyans quickly began to demand that the government produce evidence — photographs or video — to back up their claims.
Government spokesmen could not be reached for further comment about Ibrahim.
Violence has flared periodically over the last year in Bani Walid. This round of fighting began when the pro-government Libya Shield militia besieged the town, blaming residents for the death of a well-known anti-Gadhafi rebel. Negotiations to hand over the suspects in the killing had failed.
Pro-government fighters on the road outside of Bani Walid were transporting fleeing civilians and foreign workers from the fighting. Some of the fleeing workers said others were locked up in the city because of the heavy shelling.
In the Wadi Dinar area, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) outside of Bani Walid, one pro-government fighter said civilians in the city are making it harder for his troops to go after fighters loyal to Gadhafi.
"We are doing two jobs. We are rescuing foreign workers, Egyptians and Africans, and putting them on vehicles out of the fighting area, and we are combing the area for armed gunmen," he said speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Another fighter, Nidal, from Libya Shield, said the fighting over Bani Walid was focused on two fronts but that his opponents are well armed. He was speaking as clashes continued at the Wadi Dinar gate into the city, saying his force and the Bani Walid fighters were exchanging fire from two hilltops.
"This is going to take more than one day. There is a distance between us," he said.
In Tripoli, the situation in the late afternoon was tense around the parliament with dozens of protesters at the doors of the building itself while outside a few hundred more called for the end to the siege.
Militiamen acting as police arrived to contain the crowd but many were from the Souq al-Jumaa neighborhood, which earlier in the year lost several fighters in Bani Walid. The confrontation resulted in angry exchanges.
The men fired in the air several times to disperse the crowd, who responded with defiance, waving Libyan revolutionary flags and bearing their chests in front of the militiamen. Women made up around half of the crowd.
"In Bani Walid no one supports Gadhafi," said a veiled woman who identified herself only as Um Mohammed, or mother of Mohammed. "We support this government."
Um Mohammed said her children and husband were in Bani Walid.
"We need protection," she said, expressing her fears that the pro-government militias would take their revenge on the city and destroy it like they have others.
The militiamen were unsympathetic and at times prevented the protesters from talking to journalists and started hauling people out of the crowd, detaining them and beating them near their trucks.
"These people here say they want their freedom, but we gave them a lot of chances to change their mind," said one militiaman. "A lot of Gadhafi people are hiding there and people from Bani Walid have killed a lot of people form Souq al-Jumaa."
The standoff ended when 12 army trucks pulled up filled with men wearing new camouflage uniforms who fired into the air with anti-aircraft guns, sending everyone to the ground.
The trucks then drove into the parliament compound and used similar methods to disperse the people inside. Journalists were also stopped from photographing.
Schemm reported from Tripoli, Libya.