TRIPOLI Gunfights broke out in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Friday between supporters of deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi and forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC), raising fears of an insurgency against the country's new rulers.
Nearly two months since seizing the capital, Libya's National Transitional Council has failed to capture the final holdout towns still under the grip of Gaddafi's supporters. The ousted leader has repeatedly vowed to lead an uprising.
Friday's battles 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 the city since its rebel brigades seized the capital and ended Gaddafi's 42-year rule in August.
Hundreds of NTC fighters in pick-up trucks shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) careered toward the Abu Salim neighborhood, a center of support for Gaddafi, and the two sides exchanged automatic and heavy machinegun fire.
Local people told Reuters at the scene that a group of up to 50 armed men had appeared in Abu Salim earlier in the day and had chanted pro-Gaddafi slogans. NTC men said fighting also broke out in three other nearby neighborhoods.
"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, the former leader has released a number of audio recordings calling on loyalists to fight back.
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 of the NTC men plunged a knife into the prisoner's back. It was unclear if it was a fatal blow.
The captured man had been armed with a rocket-propelled grenade, said NTC fighters. The interim government's forces have been criticized 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 in the face.
Dominated by apartment blocks, Abu Salim was the last part of the capital to fall to the NTC when its forces took the city 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 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 destabilize 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 there were drive-by shootings near the Radisson hotel, where some senior NTC officials and Western diplomats are staying.
Gaddafi supporters appear to have set Friday as the date for a new uprising. A pro-Gaddafi Facebook group called October 14 bears a green Gaddafi flag and calls for an "intifada (uprising) of the free Libyan people." It has more than 1000 followers.
SIRTE STILL HOLDING OUT
Gaddafi supporters are still holding out in Sirte, Gaddafi's coastal hometown in the center 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 the last pocket of resistance by Gaddafi loyalists in his home town.
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 die-hard loyalists now only control an area measuring about 700 meters (yards) north to south, and around 1.5 km (a mile) east to west in a residential neighborhood mostly of 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 hiding in the buildings. Tanks are deployed to hit the buildings from close range and dislodge the sharpshooters.
Green flags, the banner of Gaddafi's rule, flew above many of the buildings in the loyalist enclave. An occasional sniper shot zipped past as the government forces cleaned their weapons and prepared to do battle another day.
But there was no extra build-up of troops on Friday and the NTC forces did not appear to be preparing for a final push.
Gaddafi himself is believed to be hiding somewhere in the vast Libyan desert.
Gaddafi's encircled forces in Sirte can have little hope of victory, but still fight on, inflicting dozens of casualties with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small arms. One field hospital received two dead NTC fighters and 23 wounded on Thursday.
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 trapped 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.
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