Violence has flared periodically over the last year in Bani Walid, the most significant town in Libya still resisting the country's new authorities since the end of the country's civil war last year.
Fighters of the pro-government Libya Shield militia have besieged the town, some 140 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Tripoli, for te past several weeks, blaming residents for the death of a well-known anti-Gadhafi rebel. On Wednesday, they attacked the town with mortar and artillery, then launched a ground assault after saying that negotiations to hand over the suspects in the killing had failed.
A day later, Libya's Defense Ministry deployed military forces to the town, although officials say they have not taken part in the fighting that has killed at least seven people and wounded 80 so far.
Libya's interim president, Mohammed el-Megarif, expressed regret for the bloodshed but voiced his support for the government-led offensive in a televised speech aired on national TV.
"This is not targeting a region, a tribe, or unarmed civilians but outlawed men," he said. "This is to impose state legitimacy."
The spokesman for the chief of staff, Gen. Ali al-Shekhli, said town elders and tribal leaders have promised to hand over the men accused of killings during and after Libya's civil war to the national army instead of militia forces that have besieged the town for weeks.
Friday's fighting comes on the eve of the anniversary of Gadhafi's capture and killing last year, which brought an end to an eight-month civil war that killed thousands.
Since the conflict's end, Bani Walid has changed hands twice. Rebels captured it last October at the end of the war, but fighters loyal to Gadhafi shortly afterward rose up and expelled them, along with pro-revolution residents. There was an uneasy standoff that ended when Omran Shaaban, a rebel hailed as the fighter who caught Gadhafi, was reportedly kidnapped, tortured and killed by Bani Walid residents.
With his abduction, simmering tensions boiled over and pro-government militias deployed to the outskirts of Bani Walid, imposing a siege and threatening to takeover it by force. Shaaban is from the nearby city of Misrata, which has been at odds with Bani Walid for decades. Misrata's powerful and heavily armed militia was among the first to impose the siege, which fueled fears in Bani Walid's of revenge attacks.
Al-Mubarak al-Fatmani, one of the Bani Walid rebel leaders expelled from the town last year, said the militias along with military forces have delayed sweeping through the town for fear of civilians lives.
"We could take it in few hours, but we fear for lives of people. But this will not take long," he said.