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Residents blocked from returning to captured Libyan town

Libyan militias shoot at a building in center of Bani Walid October 24, 2012. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny
Libyan militias shoot at a building in center of Bani Walid October 24, 2012. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Thousands of Libyans who fled fighting in the former Gaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid will not be allowed to return home for several more days until work was complete to make the town safe and restore services, officials said on Monday.

Militias aligned with the defense ministry took control of Bani Walid - one of the last towns to fall to rebels in last year's war - on Wednesday after fighting that has underlined the weakness of central authority a year after dictator Muammar Gaddafi was deposed.

The violence sent thousands fleeing from the hilltop town of 70,000 people in scenes reminiscent of last year's war.

Uncertain of the damage their homes may have sustained, some have tried to go back - however the town remains closed off as security forces and officials say they are working on making it safe and restoring water, electricity and communications.

"We want to make sure there isn't anything left over from the military operation. Services were destroyed," army spokesman Ali al-Sheikhi said. "We expect that in about three days (residents) will be able to go back to Bani Walid."

Fleeing residents spoke of no water or power and little food and medicine in town. The scale of destruction remains unclear.

"After what happened in Bani Walid you can say almost all of the population fled," said Mohammed al-Swai of the Libyan Relief agency. "We will try to get them back to their homes with the help of the authorities."

Local Governance Minister Mohammed al-Hrari said the lack of services was one of the main obstacles: "How can people go back if there is no water or power."

Aid workers said they had heard of a small number of the displaced trying to return through smaller roads.

At a road block made up of large stones a few kilometers from Bani Walid on Sunday, three army pickup trucks mounted with weapons stood guard, closing off the north entrance to the town. A few dozen civilian cars were parked in lines in front.

"Each day when I ask if I can check on my house, they say 'Tomorrow'," resident Abdelmanam, 20, said as he waited to see whether he could go through. He was refused entry.

Foreign reporters who arrived at the road block, in the area of Wadi Dinar, were also not allowed through to Bani Walid.

"There is graffiti on the walls inside, it may incite strife," army official Ahmed Salem said, without elaborating.

Hours after taking control of the town, militias - many from the rival town of Misrata - fired ferociously at empty public buildings, crying "Bani Walid is free!" in chaotic scenes.

"Some of the first fighters who went in were a little young ... We are erasing this graffiti because it might cause an adverse reaction," Sheikhi said, adding there would also be an investigation into reports of houses being burnt down.

The fighting erupted over a government demand Bani Walid hand over those who had kidnapped and tortured Omar Shaaban, the rebel who caught Gaddafi hiding in a drain in Sirte last year.

Shaaban, from Misrata, a city that underwent a harsh siege by Gaddafi's forces, died in a Paris hospital last month from injuries inflicted during two months of captivity in Bani Walid.

Bani Walid residents baulked at turning over the wanted men to unruly groups while the justice system remains in disarray.

The violence shows the government's inability to reconcile groups with long-running grievances and failure to bring many of the militias that deposed Gaddafi fully under its control.

(Reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Ghaith Shennib; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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