Columns of anti-Qaddafi forces entered Bani Walid on Friday after their position came under attack and one of their number said they were planning to take the town, one of the last bastions of support for the ousted Libyan leader.
“We have received orders from our commanders and we are going into Bani Walid today from different locations,” anti-Qaddafi fighter Mohammed Jwaida told Reuters at a factory 15 miles (20 km) north of the city, where the rebels were dug in.
“We were planning to do this today anyway but Qaddafi forces launched this attack to prevent our advance. They thought we would run away, they are cowards,” he said.
“We have about a thousand fighters here today,” he said, adding that they would not use heavy artillery because “we do not want to harm civilians.”
Earlier, rockets fired by Qaddafi forces in Bani Walid had hit a factory that is also used as a field hospital. Doctors there said no one had been wounded or killed in the attack. An exchange of heavy machine guns fire followed and large numbers of anti-Qaddafi forces set off to chase the attackers.
“Qaddafi forces fired four or five rockets. We are reinforcing our position and going forward,” said anti-Qaddafi fighter Mohamed Al Lawaj.
The desert town has been under siege for two weeks, with die-hard Qaddafi loyalists dug into its steep valleys and hills resisting advancing interim government forces.
The National Transitional Council (NTC) forces said on Friday that they lost at least 11 of their rebels and 34 were wounded after the battle to control Sirte, which is 360 kilometers east of Tripoli.
The rebels said that they controlled entrances of the city but retracted, citing the move as a tactical maneuver. They also said that they entered Sirte from three strategic locations: south, east, and west and from the coast, and had endured heavy fighting with Qaddafi loyalists.
The rebels, who said that they faced snipers’ bullets once they entered Sirte, added that they are combing the city to find Qaddafi forces’ military pockets.
People of Sirte joined the rebels against the loyalists after the rebels entered the city, NTC said.
NTC accused Qaddafi forces of burning down an ammunition warehouse in Shwairaf village located south of Sirte, which is still in their control.
Qaddafi forces also control a string of Saharan oases including Bani Walid, which is located southeast of Tripoli.
The Libyan visit of David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy marked the start of the “colonization” of the oil-rich country, AFP reported Qaddafi’s spokesman Mussa Ibrahim as saying on the Arrai television channel.
The British prime minister and French president, whose forces spearheaded the NATO air war that helped to topple Qaddafi, were hailed as heroes during their visit on Thursday to Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi.
But Ibrahim, in a telephone call to the Syria-based Arrai late on Thursday, charged that their joint mission had ulterior motives.
“The visit marks the start of a project of colonization of Libya,” he said.
“They are hurrying to collect the fruits of the fall of Tripoli ... because they obviously fear the arrival of America and other countries wanting a slice of the cake,” he said, without disclosing where he was phoning from.
Qaddafi and members of his inner circle have been in hiding since Tripoli was overrun by NTC fighters late last month, with the fugitive strongman still believed to be in Libya even though members of his family have fled to Algeria and Niger.
“They hurried to Tripoli to make secret deals with the collaborators and the traitors, and to take the control of oil and investments under the pretext of rebuilding,” Ibrahim said.
“They speak now about the construction of Libya for hundreds of billions of dollars ... they destroy it and rebuild it with the money of Libyans.”
Cameron, while in Tripoli, said Britain would release 600 million pounds ($950 million, 690 million euros) in Libyan assets as part of a series of measures aimed at supporting Libya's new authorities.
He also said Britain would release another 12 billion pounds in frozen Qaddafi regime assets as soon as the U.N. Security Council approved a draft resolution that Britain and France are to put forward on Friday.