Anti-Qaddafi troops repelled in battle for Bani Walid

NTC forces tried several times to take Bani Walid, only to be repelled by Qaddafi loyalists, before pulling away to regroup and reinforce for a new assault.

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Fighters for Libya's National Transitional Council retreated from their charge on the loyalist stronghold of Bani Walid, as separate units battled for control of Sirte, the hometown of Col Muammar Qaddafi, for the fifth day.

The forces tried several times to take Bani Walid, only to be repelled by Qaddafi loyalists, commanders told Al Jazeera television in Libya.

The official, trained military of the NTC pulled away from Bani Walid to regroup and reinforce for a new assault after they were heavily beaten in the town on Friday.

This has left bands of ragtag, undisciplined fighters on the front line. These include boys as young as 18 who spend hours smoking cannabis, shooting at plastic bottles, arguing with one another and firing wildly into the streets out of apparent boredom.

When they decide to enter the town, they charge in half a dozen pickup trucks only to retreat a short while later.

Yesterday, three of their cars rode right into an ambush by Qaddafi forces on a street none of the outsiders was familiar with.

But the council's troops did capture the town of Zella, near the loyalist stronghold of Jufra, and Sultan, which lies east of Sirte, according to Al Jazeera.

About 6,000 anti-Qaddafi forces are trying to capture Sirte and may defeat loyalists within "two or three days", NTC commander Major General Suleiman Mahmoud said yesterday.

He was heading to Sirte to supervise operations and possible negotiations for its surrender.

Members of the NTC meeting in Benghazi are in negotiations to form a cabinet, said the interim prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril. The council is working to establish its authority in the capital and form diplomatic ties abroad.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) will recognize the NTC as Libya's representative, its secretary-general, Abdalla El Badri, said in Dubai yesterday.

Mr El Badri said he saw little damage to oil fields in the eastern and western parts of Libya as a result of more than six months of war, and predicted that output will soon rise to between 500,000 and 600,000 barrels a day.

Christophe de Margerie, the chief executive officer of Total, one of the world's major oil companies, told Germany's Handelsblatt newspaper that its production sites in Libya are in good condition and that the French firm expects to resume operations "very fast".

Total is seeking new business opportunities in Libya as the country tries to develop its oil and gas industry, Mr de Margerie said.

He said that Total may develop the liquefied-gas business in Libya or help national oil and gas companies tap reserves in a more aggressive and structured way.

Meanwhile, General Mahmoud said commanders from the Misuata Military Council will be included in the NTC military council, without giving further details.

He spoke in response to complaints that Col Qaddafi opponents from the city are not now represented.

General Mahmoud, a career general and author of a study of the North African theatre during the Second World War, joined the uprising in its first days in February.

He was appointed NTC army commander after the death of its former chief, Abdul Fatah Younes, on July 28. Opposition fighters positioned heavy artillery near Sirte overnight to support the assault.

The coastal city, one of the last places to hold out against the anti-Qaddafi forces,- has been the focus of fierce fighting since last week.

Among the casualties was Ibrahim Halbus, commander of the largest brigade in Misurata, the Halbus Brigade, who was shot in the neck yesterday and is undergoing surgery to combat possible paralysis, the council said.

* Bloomberg, with additional reporting by the Associated Press