TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Gunbattles between supporters of deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi and forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) shook the Libyan capital on Friday, raising fears of an insurgency against the country's new rulers.
The clashes appeared to be isolated and involve only dozens of pro-Gaddafi fighters, but it was the first sign of armed resistance to the NTC in Tripoli since its rebel brigades seized the city and ended Gaddafi's 42-year rule in August.
Hundreds of NTC fighters in pick-up trucks shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) careered towards the Abu Salim neighbourhood, a repository of support for Gaddafi, and the two sides exchanged automatic and heavy machinegun fire.
The fighting in Tripoli coincided with prolonged battles in Sirte, where NTC forces are battling pro-Gaddafi fighters holed up in a small area of Gaddafi's home town.
Local people in Tripoli told Reuters that a group of up to 50 armed men had appeared in the Abu Salim district earlier in the day and chanted pro-Gaddafi slogans. NTC men said fighting also broke out in three nearby neighbourhoods.
"Gaddafi told them in a message last night to rise up after Friday prayers," said one NTC fighter, Abdullah. "That's why these few people have come out and are causing this problem."
Since he went into hiding after rebel forces captured Tripoli on August 23, Gaddafi has released a number of audio recordings calling on loyalists to fight back.
Two Gaddafi supporters and one NTC fighter were killed in Friday's violence in Tripoli, NTC official Abdel Razak al Oraidi said during a press conference in the capital.
"Orders were issued to raise the state of alert to the maximum," Oraidi said. "Gaddafi supporters should give up their weapons. Those who do not do so will be considered terrorists."
NTC fighters dragged one man out of an apartment block in Abu Salim, a traditional bastion of support for Gaddafi. As he was kicked and punched, one NTC man tried twice to stab the prisoner only to be blocked each time by another NTC man.
The captured man had been armed with a rocket-propelled grenade, said NTC fighters. The interim government's forces have been criticised by human rights groups for their treatment of prisoners. Reuters saw at least two other captured gunmen taken away in pickup trucks being punched and kicked.
Dominated by apartment blocks, Abu Salim was the last part of the capital to fall to the NTC when its forces took Tripoli on August 23 after six months of civil war.
The NTC fighters were met by volleys of machinegun fire as they went from house to house searching for remaining pro-Gaddafi gunmen. Shooting died down later in the afternoon.
"Some Gaddafi cells came out on the streets with guns today after prayers but, as you can see, our forces have the situation under control," said a senior NTC official at the scene under heavy protection, Mahmoud Abdul Aziz.
"All families are safe. If Gaddafi is still at large we won't see peace but we will slay that beast."
A spokesman for the NTC in the eastern city of Benghazi dismissed Gaddafi's armed supporters in Tripoli as a "fifth column" trying to destabilise the country.
"The other thing I hear that is disturbing is that the fifth column has been doing some drive-by shootings around Tripoli today. These are loyalists trying to wreak havoc," he said.
Diplomats told Reuters that there were also drive-by shootings near the Radisson hotel, where some senior NTC officials and Western diplomats are staying.
SIRTE STILL HOLDING OUT
Gaddafi supporters are still holding out in Sirte, Gaddafi's Mediterranean coastal hometown in the centre of the country, where a small pocket is battling on after weeks of fighting, and Bani Walid, a town south of Tripoli.
Government forces pushed tanks deep into Sirte on Friday to try to smash resistance by pro-Gaddafi fighters.
The mostly untrained NTC militia army has gradually tightened its stranglehold around Sirte in a chaotic struggle that has cost scores of lives and left thousands homeless.
The failure to seize the final Gaddafi bastions has also held up the attempt by Libya's new leaders to try to build a democratic government, a process they say will begin only after Sirte is captured.
NTC commanders say Gaddafi's diehard loyalists now only control an area measuring about 700 metres (yards) north to south, and around 1.5 km (a mile) east to west in a residential neighbourhood comprising mostly apartment blocks.
"We are going to engage them with tanks and heavy artillery first. After that we will send in the pick-up trucks with anti-aircraft guns, then the infantry," said NTC commander Abdul Hadi Doghman.
The biggest obstacle to taking the town has been Gaddafi's snipers hunkered down in buildings.
Green flags, the banner of Gaddafi's rule, still fly above many of the buildings in Sirte. An occasional sniper shot zipped past government forces cleaning their weapons.
Gaddafi's encircled forces in Sirte have little hope of victory, but still fight on, inflicting casualties with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small arms.
Gaddafi himself is believed to be hiding somewhere in the vast desert of southern Libya.
FEAR OF REPRISALS
One NTC commander said Gaddafi's forces were no longer using heavier weapons and appeared to have lost their cohesion.
"We've noticed now they are fighting every man for himself," said Baloun al-Sharie, a field commander. "We tried to tell them it's enough and to give themselves up, but they would not."
NTC officers say Gaddafi loyalists fear reprisals if they surrender -- some captured fighters have been abused.
A Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) doctor at Sirte's Ibn Sina hospital estimated there are still some 10,000 people marooned by the fighting in the city of 75,000 residents. Many of those trapped are women or children and some need medical care.
"In the past few days, the patients haven't been able to receive proper medical care, due to a shortage of doctors and due to the lack of water," said Gabriele Rossi. "The wounds of some patients are really bad and very infected."
Amnesty International issued a report on Wednesday saying Libya's new rulers were in danger of repeating human rights abuses commonplace under Gaddafi. The NTC said it would look into the report.
(Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal and Tim Gaynor in Sirte; Brian Rohan in Benghazi and Ali Shuaid and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo; Writing by Joseph Nasr and Jon Hemming; Editing by Alastair Macdonald, Peter Graff and Mark Heinrich)