Libya’s new leadership on Saturday pressed a campaign to clear the capital of armed Muammar Gaddafi loyalists after fierce gun battles killed three people in the first fighting to rock Tripoli since its capture in August.
The head of Tripoli’s supreme military council, Abdelhakim Belhaj, pledged tough action against the pro-Gaddafi fighters and “sleeper cells” of the former regime which he said would be targeted in the clean-up operation.
Pro-Gaddafi gunmen on Friday clashed with fighters loyal to the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Abu Salim, a district around 10km south of the city centre known to harbour supporters of the fugitive strongman.
“The fighters are in the process of clearing the buildings in the area of Gaddafi loyalists,” Hamad (40) — an NTC soldier manning one of the checkpoints in the neighbourhood — said on Saturday.
He said they had already found evidence that the Gaddafi loyalists had been preparing for the clashes, including sandbags and flak jackets on the roofs of apartment blocks.
Abdelrazaq al-Aradi, vice-president of the security committee in Tripoli, said three people had been killed in the clashes there — two Gaddafi loyalists and one NTC fighter — and another 30 people wounded.
Aradi told a news conference that around 50 armed Gaddafi supporters were behind the violence, 27 of whom, including four “African mercenaries”, were arrested on Friday.
Abu Salim residents said the fighting broke out during pro-Gaddafi demonstrations after noon prayers, prompted by a call to rise from a pro-Gaddafi Libyan television presenter earlier in the week, broadcast on Iraqi TV channel Al-Rai.
“We have to be firm with these Gaddafi supporters and finish the resistance here once and for all. After more than 40 years, we don’t want to waste any more time,” said a taxi driver in Abu Salim, echoing the comments of several other residents.
The district, notorious for its prison where the Gaddafi regime held its opponents, was the last area of the capital to witness resistance after NTC forces stormed the veteran strongman’s sprawling and fortified Bab al-Aziziya headquarters on August 23.
Clashes were also reported in other parts of Tripoli, although a senior official in the military council claimed they were “very limited” in scope and had been swiftly brought under control.
Many roads in the capital were closed following the violence.
The flare-up came as a setback to the new regime which hopes to proclaim the country’s liberation within days and prepare for the transition to an elected government when Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte is finally captured by NTC forces.
Libya’s new regime forces kept up pressure on the last two pockets of resistance in Sirte on Saturday with hundreds of men surrounding the Dollar and Number Two districts, an Agence France-Presse correspondent said.
“We had sporadic clashes the whole night with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades,” said Faraj al-Wafi, a fighter from the Martyrs of Free Libya Brigade, who spent the night in the area.
NTC commanders decided after a meeting on Saturday to hold off on an all-out assault on the two neighbourhoods in a bid to capture the top regime figures they believe are holed up there alive, a senior commander said on Saturday.
“The resistance from the two neighbourhoods is high because we believe there are four to five important people inside,” eastern front operations chief Wesam bin Hamaibi said after the meeting.
“We are sure that [Gaddafi’s son and his national security chief] Mutassim and [ousted defence minister] Abu Bakr Yunis are inside,” he said.
“We also believe that Seif al-Islam [another of Gaddafi’s sons] and Gaddafi [himself] are possibly inside.
“We want to capture them alive to hand them over to the judiciary rather than killing them, which is why we are still not going to have a massive attack.”
Sirte is a key goal for the NTC which has said it will not proclaim Libya’s liberation and begin preparing for the transition to an elected government until the city has fallen.
Nato said in its operational update on Saturday that its aircraft had hit a military vehicle in Bani Walid, a desert oasis southeast of Tripoli that is the only other remaining bastion of Gaddafi loyalists. — AFP