Libyan forces say they have seized part of loyalist town

September 20, 2011

BANI WALID/SIRTE – Libya’s interim government said yesterday that its forces had seized the airport and fort in Sabha, one of the last strongholds of forces loyal to Muammar Gadafy which also controls the main route south out of Libya.

“Our forces are there in the airport and in the castle . . . Our flags are flying there,” Ahmed Bani, a military spokesman for the National Transitional Council (NTC), told a news conference in Tripoli. It was not possible to obtain independent confirmation.

Sabha, 770km (480 miles) south of Tripoli and overlooked by an old fort built by Libya’s former Italian colonial rulers, controls the main trail south to neighbouring Niger, an escape route used by members of Col Gadafy’s entourage.

Any advance on the town, which is still used as a military base, would be an important boost for government forces who are struggling to oust Gadafy loyalists from the towns of Bani Walid and Sirte as well as to contain disunity in their own ranks.

Col Bani also denied an assertion by Gadafy’s spokesman that his forces had captured 17 British and French nationals in the fight for Bani Walid. “There are no British or French prisoners” in the town, he said. The claim by Gadafy’s spokesman Moussa Ibrahim that foreign security personnel had been captured could not be verified and no immediate proof was presented.

“A group was captured in Bani Walid consisting of 17 mercenaries. They are technical experts and they include consultative officers, Mr Ibrahim said on Syria-based Arrai television, which has backed Col Gadafy.

“Most of them are French, one of them is from an Asian country that has not been identified, two English people and one Qatari.” French foreign minister Alain Juppé said there were “no French mercenaries in Libya”, while the British foreign office said it had no information about whether the report was true. Qatar’s foreign ministry was not available for comment. Nato, which is staging air strikes on Gadafy loyalist positions, says it has no troops on the ground in Libya.

Western nations have sent special forces in the past, and the media have reported that private security firms have aided anti-Gadafy forces in training, target ting and with leadership. Gulf Arab states have also sent trainers and arms.

Among the confirmed sightings of foreign security personnel in Libya during the conflict, the head of a French security firm was shot dead at a checkpoint in Benghazi in May, and British special forces troops were held for three days by rebels in March while escorting a spy trying to make contacts

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