In Libya, fighters enter Qadhafi support bastion in Bani Walid

BANI WALID, Libya – Libyan revolutionary forces faced fierce resistance as they streamed into one of the remaining bastions of support for Muammar Qadhafi on Friday, while the Turkish prime minister met with the country's new rulers in the capital Tripoli.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit came a day after the French and British leaders traveled to Libya as the international community rallies around the interim government's efforts to establish legitimacy and start rebuilding the country despite continued fighting against loyalists of Qadhafi, who remains on the run.

Libyan fighters in dozens of pickup trucks mounted with heavy weapons were making their way from the north into the center of town of Bani Walid, 140 kilometers southeast of Tripoli. Explosions and gunfire resounded across the area and smoke billowed into the sky as fierce clashes broke out.

One of the fighters, Hisham Nseir, said the frontline is "very heated and chaotic" and his troops were meeting with heavy resistance from Gadhafi's men.

As they advanced, the fighters erected the new Libyan flag over an abandoned electricity building and a military headquarters in the northern part of Bani Walid. Around the buildings lay a huge Qadhafi poster bent in half and torn billboards with pictures of the ousted dictator. The walls were still sprayed with graffiti reading, "Long live Muammar." Commander Abdullah Abu-Asara told The Associated Press that his men were just over 2 kilometers away from reaching the very heart of Bani Walid and that the main obstacle in their way was Wadi Zaytun, an elongated valley full of Qadhafi snipers.

"Today is the first day that we have completely taken over this part of Bani Walid," said Abul-Asara. "We are staying here."

Libyan fighters also have converged on Qadhafi's hometown of Sirte to the north of Bani Walid.

NATO airstrikes continued to pound pro-Qadhafi targets. The alliance said it struck multiple rocket launchers, air missile systems, armored vehicles and a military storage facility in Sirte on Thursday. NATO has conducted over 8,500 strikes on Libya since late March.

Abdel Salam, a fighter on the frontline near Sirte, said his side lost 11 men late Thursday, killed as their bus drove over a roadside bomb. He said at least 18 fighters were detained by Qadhafi loyalists after they were ambushed at the entrance of Sirte.

"We reached inside Sirte and then retreated," Salam said.

As the battles centered on Bani Walid, Sirte and the city of Sabha, deep in the southern desert, Libya's interim leadership has been pushing forward with efforts to form a new government.

Erdogan was greeted at the airport by Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the National Transitional Council, the closest thing Libya has to a government. He traveled to Libya as part of a tour of the Arab world, including Egypt and Tunisia, that is aimed at offering help for the countries and advancing his growing status as a regional leader.

He was expected to discuss how to resume investments in Libya, where Turkish contractors were involved in 214 building projects worth more than US$15 billion before the rebellion that ousted Qadhafi.

Erdogan's tour comes as once-strong ties between Turkey and Israel are unraveling due to Israel's refusal to apologize for its raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that killed nine pro-Palestinian activists last year.

The flotilla incident and Turkey's desire to broaden its influence in the Middle East and the Arab world could dramatically affect the power dynamics in the region since the revolutions now known as the Arab Spring.

Turkish companies have been involved in lucrative construction projects worth billions of dollars, building hospitals, shopping malls and five-star hotels in Libya before the uprising began in mid-February.

The bilateral trade with Libya was US$2.4 billion in favor of Turkey before the chaos and the two countries had waived travel visas to boost that trade.

The US and more than 30 other nations formally recognized Libya's main opposition group as the country's legitimate government in a July meeting in Istanbul, giving the rebel movement a major boost. The move came after Turkey escalated its pressure on Gadhafi despite its long-standing ties to the Libyan leader.

Erdogan has said that Qadhafi ignored calls for change in Libya and instead preferred "blood, tears and pressure against his own people."

Turkey has recently reopened its embassy in Tripoli which was shut down due to deteriorating security. The Turkish consulate in the rebel-controlled city of Benghazi remained open throughout the conflict.

Turkey initially balked at the idea of military action in Libya, but as a NATO member it is helping to enforce an arms embargo on Libya and volunteered to lead humanitarian aid efforts.

Erdogan also was expected to appear on the Martyrs' Square, which was renamed from the Qadhafi-era Green Square, in Tripoli and to travel to the cities of Misrata and Benghazi.

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