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Libyan forces in control of most of Bani Walid; still face pockets of resistance

Libyan revolutionary forces have captured almost all of Bani Walid, one of Muammar Qaddafi’s last remaining strongholds, but still face pockets of resistance as they try to end a weeks-long standoff, officials say.

Col. Ahmed Bani, a military spokesman in Tripoli, told Al Arabiya that the revolutionary forces had control over more than 95 percent of the city. He said revolutionary forces had suffered heavy casualties but declined to give a number.

Fierce resistance in Bani Walid and Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte has prevented Libya’s new leaders from declaring full victory and setting a timeline for elections. It has been more than two months since the former rebels gained control of the rest of the oil-rich North African nation.

In a step toward normalcy, the transitional leadership council confirmed Monday it has signed an agreement with NATO that partially lifts the no-fly zone imposed in March over the country, allowing resumption of some flights without seeking NATO approval. The embargo was imposed as part of the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized airstrikes to protect civilians from Qaddafi’s regime.

Anwar Elfeitori, the minister of transportation and communications, said the agreement signed Thursday in Malta will make it easier to transport wounded fighters from the front lines for treatment.

“The partial lifting of the air embargo will help with the transportation of the casualties, which is the No. 1 priority at this time, as well as facilitate the movement of people between Libya and the rest of the world,” Elfeitori told The Associated Press in an interview.

He said the agreement only applies to specific routes and altitudes for humanitarian flights but is designed so it can be amended to include other areas as security conditions allow.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the revolutionary council fighters are making progress. He called on pro-Qaddafi forces “to lay down their weapons and join the new Libya.”

NATO officials have expressed surprise at the persistence of Qaddafi’s supporters. Libyans believe the heavy resistance signals some of Qaddafi’s sons and other high-level regime figures are hiding in the areas.

Fighters in Bani Walid, which has proven particularly hard to capture because of its difficult terrain, said they have entered the city center for the first time but still were fighting Qaddafi supporters in surrounding villages.

“We liberated the city around sunset on Sunday and raised the revolutionary flags all over the city,” field commander Abdel-Salam Genouna told The Associated Press on Monday. He said fighters had occupied the central marketplace, the hospital, the hotel and an old fort that had all been used as bases for Qaddafi loyalists.

“We are patrolling the neighborhoods because there are still some scuffles, but otherwise it is completely under our control,” he said, adding revolutionaries also had control of a steep valley called Wadi Zeitoun that had been a sniper base for Qaddafi’s forces.

“Our forces are everywhere inside the city, and we are protecting the few families we found inside,” he said.

He said fighters from Sabratha, Tripoli and Bani Walid were involved in the operation.

Residents and fighters said that Qaddafi forces retreated in the face of the advance over the past two days.

Muammar al-Warfali, a doctor in Bani Walid, said fighters loyal to the new transitional government seized the center, a key hospital and several other high buildings used by Qaddafi’s snipers to prevent any advance by the revolutionary fighters.

He also said Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam had been seen in the city as recently as last week.

NATO has pledged to continue airstrikes for as long as necessary, saying pro-Qaddafi forces continue to pose a threat to civilians in Libya.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague also pledged more humanitarian and financial support Monday during a visit to Tripoli.