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Libyan fighters struggle to regroup after Bani Walid retreat
BANI WALID, Libya (AP) ' Revolutionary fighters struggled to regroup Saturday outside the loyalist stronghold of Bani Walid after being driven back by fierce resistance from followers of Moammar Gadhafi, temporarily quieting one battlefield while a second offensive sought to capture Gadhafi's hometown from followers of his shattered regime.
There were no signs anti-Gadhafi forces were seeking to make a swift counter punch into Bani Walid, a mountain enclave about 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. The fighters withdrew Friday after facing withering sniper fire and shelling from loyalists units holding strategic positions above the valley entrance to the town.
"This may be the worst front Libya will see," said fighter Osama Al-Fassi. "I don't think we will have orders to move in today."
Meanwhile, more families fled the town. At least a dozen cars streamed out during the lull in the combat.
The tough defense of the holdout bastions of Bani Walid and Sirte ' on Libya's central Mediterranean coast ' displayed the firepower and resolve of the Gadhafi followers and suggested Libya's new rulers may not easily break the back of regime holdouts. It also raised fears the country could face a protracted insurgency of the sort that has played out in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The Gadhafi loyalists have so many weapons," cried Maab Fatel, a 28-year-old revolutionary fighter on the front lines in Bani Walid on Friday.
"This battle is really crazy," Fatel said, his uniform splattered with blood from carrying a wounded comrade.
Revolutionary forces began Friday by streaming into Bani Walid but pulled back after intense fighting failed to dislodge pro-Gadhafi snipers and gunners from strategic positions. The two sides traded relentless mortar and rocket fire across a 500-yard-wide desert valley called Wadi Zeitoun that divides the town between north and south.
Mohaned Bendalla, a doctor at a field hospital in nearby Wishtata, said at least six rebels were killed and more than 50 were wounded in Friday's battles.
Inside the town, a radio station believed linked to one of Gadhafi's main propagandist kept up a steady stream of appeals to fight and rants that demonized the revolutionaries as traitors who did not honor Islamic values.
"These revolutionaries are fighting to drink and do drugs all the time and be like the West, dance all night," the announcer claimed. "We are a traditional tribal society that refuses such things and must fight it."
Ahmed Omar Bani, a military spokesman for Libya's transitional government, dismissed such allegations, saying the revolutionary forces' only goal was "to liberate our people."
In Sirte ' the second part of the twin offensives ' Gadhafi's backers rained gunfire down from mosque minarets and high-rise buildings on fighters pushing into the city from the west. In the streets the two sides battered each other with high-caliber machine guns, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades.
At one point, a pickup truck filled with revolutionary forces rushed back to the rear lines, its bed bloodied and strewn with the body parts and mangled face of a fighter who had been manning a machine gun. Other fighters shouting "God is great" pulled out his lifeless remains and comforted his partner, the pickup driver.
Gadhafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said loyalist forces inflicted a heavy blow Friday on their enemies, killing many and taking many others hostage.
"We have the ability to continue this resistance for months," he said in a phone call Friday to Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become the mouthpiece for the former regime.
The loyalists still hold a swath of Libya along the central coast and into the southern deserts more than three weeks after revolutionary fighters swept into Tripoli and drove out Gadhafi. The whereabouts of the ousted leader and several of his sons remain unknown.
Hundreds of former rebels also have massed deep in the southern desert and were trying to negotiate with villagers in a pro-Gadhafi area to surrender peacefully and avoid bloodshed.
The fighters captured an air base about 45 miles (70 kilometers) north of the loyalist stronghold of Sabha on Thursday. Col. Bashir Awidat, who is from the Wadi Shati region, said they need to secure the area before moving against Sabha.
Awidat said two former rebels and four loyalists were killed in the fighting, and that they had taken 14 prisoners.
He added that the villagers had been isolated and believed Gadhafi's propaganda.
"They think that we'll raid their houses and rob them. The media coverage here has been bad for 42 years and it has trained people to think a certain way, and that will take time to change," he told The Associated Press at the air base.
The new leadership has been gaining international support in its campaign to root out the rest of Gadhafi's regime and establish authority. French President Nicholas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan all visited Tripoli this week.
Erdogan joined Friday prayers in Tripoli's Martyrs' Square, the heart of the city once known as Green Square where Gadhafi's regime threw rallies of supporters before his fall.
"You have shown the whole world that no one can stand before the power and the will of the people," Erdogan told a cheering crowd of thousands. He predicted the Syrian regime would be next to fall, saying "the era of autocracy is ending."
The U.N. General Assembly also voted Friday to give Libya's seat in the world body to the National Transitional Council, which is the closest thing the oil-rich North African nation has to a government.
The vote means that a senior council official will be able to join world leaders and speak for Libya at next week's ministerial session of the General Assembly, and participate in meetings.
Also Friday, the U.N. Security Council approved a new U.N. mission in Libya and the unfreezing of assets of two major oil companies. It also lifted a ban on flights by Libyan aircraft and modified an arms embargo.
Lucas reported from Sirte. Associated Press writers Kim Gamel in Tripoli, Libya, Ben Hubbard at the Jalloul Air Force Base, Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.