Friday, October 14, 2011

Shootout at the Abu Salim Corral

SIRTE, Libya — Gunfights broke out in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Friday between supporters of deposed leader Moammar Gadhafi and forces of the National Transitional Council, raising fears of an insurgency against the country's new rulers.

The clashes appeared to be isolated and involve only dozens of pro-Gadhafi fighters, but it was the first sign of armed resistance to the NTC in Tripoli since its rebel brigades seized the city and ended Gadhafi's 42-year rule in August.

Hundreds of NTC fighters in pick-up trucks shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) careened toward the Abu Salim neighborhood, a repository of support for Gadhafi, 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-Gadhafi fighters holed up in a small area of Gadhafi'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-Gadhafi slogans. NTC men said fighting also broke out in three nearby neighborhoods.

"Gadhafi 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, Gadhafi has released a number of audio recordings calling on loyalists to fight back

Two Gadhafi 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.

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"Orders were issued to raise the state of alert to the maximum," Oraidi said. "Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi. 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 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.

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-Gadhafi gunmen. Shooting died down later in the afternoon.

"Some Gadhafi 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.

"Some Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi'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 that there were also drive-by shootings near the Radisson hotel, where some senior NTC officials and Western diplomats are staying.

Libyan forces clash with gunmen in Tripoli

By Mary Beth Sheridan, Updated: Friday, October 14, 4:41 PM

MISURATA, Libya — A gun battle broke out Friday between supporters and opponents of ousted leader Moammar Gaddafi, in some of the worst political violence in the Libyan capital of Tripoli since his government was toppled two months ago.

Truckloads of revolutionary gunmen clutching automatic rifles roared off to the Tripoli neighborhood of Abu Salim after reports emerged of a group of armed people there waving the green flag of Gaddafi’s government.

Although authorities said the clash proved relatively minor, it unnerved residents still fearful of Gaddafi, whose repressive rule lasted 42 years and who remains at large. The sound of semiautomatic fire echoed across the city, and reports spread of gunfights in other areas of the city.

“Gaddafi’s still alive, so the world is still in danger,” said Col. Ahmed Bani, spokesman for Libya’s new Defense Ministry.

Officials and witnesses offered varying versions of how the conflict began. Col. Ahmed Barati, head of the country’s military police, said authorities had received intelligence on Thursday of a planned attack by Gaddafi loyalists in Abu Salim, one of the last neighborhoods to fall to the rebels in August. He said a group of Gaddafi supporters was waving green flags and firing weapons when forces supporting the new government arrived.

The Associated Press quoted a witness who gave a somewhat different version, saying snipers opened fire on revolutionary forces after they arrived at the protest, triggering the battle. The anti-Gaddafi forces discovered weapons on the rooftops of buildings on the street, the news service said.

Barati said six of the Gaddafi loyalists had been arrested. He had no reports of casualties. But Reuters news service said a revolutionary soldier plunged a knife into the back of one man dragged out of an apartment building in Abu Salim, who had been captured holding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

There were reports of gunfire in other parts of the city, including around the seaside Radisson Blu hotel popular with foreign diplomats and journalists, but authorities could not confirm they came from actual clashes. Tripoli is awash in weapons looted from government storehouses after Gaddafi’s regime collapsed, and many revolutionary fighters think nothing of shooting off a few rounds for their own amusement.

Tripoli has been largely calm since anti-Gaddafi forces swept into the city in August and quickly won control. The U.S. and other embassies have reopened and some business people and teachers are starting to return. But the interim government’s control is still tenuous, with heavily armed militias from different regions of the country dominating different neighborhoods.

Pro-Gaddafi forces are still holed up in the cities of Sirte and Bani Walid, defying weeks of bombardment by revolutionary forces backed by NATO airstrikes. Most observers say they believe the cities will fall soon, even as Gaddafi has sought to rally his followers with tape-recorded messages from hiding.

Libyan officials said that Friday’s clash did not signify a major security threat, but that Gaddafi’s supporters remain a problem.

“They are like snakes, staying calm and then attacking,” Bani said.

Special correspondent Ayman al-Kekly contributed to this report.

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