Fresh clashes in a former bastion of Muammar Qaddafi killed at least 26 people, as confusion swirled on Sunday over the fate of one of his most-wanted former aides, Mussa Ibrahim.
The government had announced Saturday that Ibrahim, mouthpiece of the toppled regime, had been captured in the western town of Tarhuna, between Bani Walid and Tripoli, exactly year after Qaddafi was himself captured and killed. But later a government spokesman said there was no confirmation of the capture and an audiotape surfaced on the Internet purportedly with Ibrahim himself denying the report.
Mohammed Megaryef, president of the national assembly, gave a sombre assessment of the post-Qaddafi period on the first anniversary since his capture and killing on October 20, 2011. Not all areas had been successfully "liberated", he said, and warned that loyalists and criminals, particularly those sheltered in Bani Walid, continued to pose a threat to the country.
"The campaign to liberate the country has not been fully completed... Bani Walid's misfortune is that it has become a sanctuary for a large number of outlaws and anti-revolutionaries and mercenaries," he said.
Many Libyans are persuaded that heavy weight personalities of the previous regime, including Qaddafi's son Khamis, took shelter in Bani Walid after the end of the 2011 conflict. Social networking sites were abuzz Sunday with "rumours" of their capture.
The confusion is rooted in a late Saturday government denial and the posting on Facebook of an audiotape in which a man who identifies himself as Ibrahim paid tribute to fallen dictator Qaddafi. "On the subject of my arrest today... it is an attempt to draw attention away from the crimes committed by NATO's rebels against our people in Bani Walid," said the man, in the tape whose authenticity could not immediately be confirmed.
Fierce fighting erupted on Saturday as pro-government forces pushed closer to Bani Walid's centre, said military spokesman Colonel Ali al-Sheikhi. The fighting left at least 26 people dead and more than 200 wounded, according to an AFP tally based on hospital tolls from Bani Walid and Misrata, where pro-government forces were being treated.
A medical official in the town said the violence subsided after sundown. Bani Walid's military commander earlier reported heavy shelling and accused the new authorities of giving militias "a green light to exterminate us."
Forces linked to the army, most of them former rebels, have this month encircled the hilltop town in a bid to capture the men who kidnapped and allegedly tortured an ex-rebel from Misrata credited with capturing Gaddafi.
The death of Omar ben Shaaban, 22, stoked tensions between Misrata and Bani Walid, neighbouring but historically rival cities which found themselves on opposite sides of the 2011 conflict. Megaryef, the de facto head of state, said the operations against Bani Walid "do not target this brave city or its people, rather they target culprits, wanted people, the accused and infiltrators.
"This is not a genocide or ethnic cleansing as erroneously claimed by some. It is a campaign to restore legitimacy."
Many elders and commanders in the town have vowed to repel any advance by "lawless militias." They question the neutrality of the national army, which is still being formed and relies on former rebels.
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya also expressed concern.
"In the interests of national reconciliation and long-term stability of the country, a mediated settlement is urgently needed," said the UN envoy to Libya, Tarek Mitri, in a statement urging the protection of civilians.