Bani Walid was the site of a prolonged battle before the NTC overpowered the town in October [AFP]

At least five people have been killed in fighting in the Libyan town of Bani Walid between fighters still loyal to Muammar Gaddafi and forces supporting the country's transitional government.

Mohamed Bashir, the town's mayor, told Al Jazeera late on Monday that forces loyal to the National Transitional Council had pulled out of the town at 7pm local time after about four hours of fighting, while a town spokesman said the Gaddafi-era Libyan green flag had been raised over the town.

"We don't see fighting right now, but there are a lot of casualties," said Bashir. "Tomorrow morning, the situation will probably be much better... A military force [will] take over Bani Walid, to take back security," he said.

A resident of the town, about 200km southeast of Tripoli, said the fight on Monday used heavy weaponry, including 106-mm anti-tank guns, and that 20 people were wounded.

The assault was the first major offensive launched by Gaddafi loyalists since he was killed in October, weeks after being toppled from power.

"There are around 100 and 150 men armed with heavy weapons who are attacking. We have asked for the army to intervene, but the defence ministry and NTC have let us down," Mahmud Warfelli, a spokesperson for the Bani Walid local council, said.

"[The gunmen] took control and hoisted the green flag on some important districts in the centre of the city," he said, referring to the Gaddafi-era flag. "We've been warning about this for the past two months."

Last stronghold

Bani Walid, considered a bastion of the powerful Warfallah tribe, was one of the last towns in Libya to surrender to the uprising that toppled Gaddafi last year. Many people in the area still oppose the country's new leadership.

The violence in Bani Walid first broke out when members of the May 28 group arrested some Gaddafi loyalists.

 

That prompted other supporters of the former leader to attack the group's garrison in the town, according to the resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"They massacred men at the doors of the militia headquarters," the resident said.

Fathi Baja, a senior NTC member, said that ambulances had been unable to evacuate those wounded because there were "snipers positioned on a school and a mosque in the vicinity" of the attack.

Fotmani said later that Gaddafi loyalists had taken all the heavy weaponry from the NTC garrison, and set fire to the local council's main building.

"Yesterday they had distributed leaflets saying 'We will be back soon. We will take the rats out'," he said.

NTC struggling

Libya's NTC has already been struggling with violent protests in its stronghold city of Benghazi and the resignation of its second most senior official.

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An air force official told Reuters that jets were being mobilised to fly to Bani Walid. In Tripoli, there were signs of security being tightened, Reuters reporters in the city said.

During Libya's nine-month civil war, fighters opposed to Gaddafi fought for months to take Bani Walid.

Local tribal elders eventually agreed to let NTC fighters enter the town, but relations have been uneasy since and there have been occasional flare-ups of violence.

In November last year, several people were killed in Bani Walid when an armed group from Tripoli's Souq al-Juma district arrived in the town to try to arrest some local men.

Re-taking control of the town is a challenge due to natural defences. Anyone approaching from the north has to descend into a deep valley and then climb up the other side, giving defenders an advantage.

It was this landscape, in part, that prevented opposition fighters from taking the town during the civil war, despite the fact they were heavily armed.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies