TRIPOLI, Libya – The chief of Libya's former rebels arrived in Tripoli on Saturday, greeted in a boisterous red carpet welcome meant to show he's taking charge of the interim government replacing the ousted regime of Muammar Qaddafi.
But even as Libya's new leaders tried to consolidate control over the vast country, Qaddafi loyalists pushed back hard against an assault on the town of Bani Walid, one of Qaddafi's remaining strongholds, suggesting the battle is far from over.
Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the anti-Qaddafi forces' National Transitional Council, landed Saturday at an air force base on the outskirts of Tripoli. A tattered red carpet was rolled out, and hundreds of fighters and officials in suits rushed toward the plane as he walked down the steps. Some flashed victory signs or shouted "God is great."
Abdul-Jalil was mobbed by the crowd as he tried to make his way to the air force building. At one point, a fistfight broke out between two guards. One of the guards waved a pistol in the air and was knocked down by bystanders using a metal detector and a potted plant, before Abdul-Jalil was rushed into a secure area.
Despite the chaos, no shots were fired.
Abdul-Jalil's arrival was meant to show that the former rebels are getting ready to establish their government in the capital. Until now, most of leaders of the anti-Qaddafi movement had been based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
The leader's presence "means that Tripoli is safe and that we can look to the future," said Atia al-Mansouri, a former air force pilot who was among those waiting on the tarmac.
Revolutionary forces entered Tripoli on Aug. 21, six months after the uprising against Qaddafi began.
The fall of Tripoli effectively sealed the fate of Qaddafi's regime, but Abdul-Jalil stayed away from the capital until Saturday. His absence had at times raised questions about the former rebels' ability to take charge.
Officials close to Abdul-Jalil cited security concerns as one of the reasons for his prolonged absence.
While anti-Qaddafi forces have driven armed loyalists out of Tripoli, the security situation remains shaky. The capital has been flooded with weapons, including those in the hands of civilians.
Earlier Saturday, as reporters waited for Abdul-Jalil's arrival at the air force base, a group of fighters escorted a wooden coffin to a nearby plane. The coffin carried a fighter who was killed Friday by a young civilian in Tripoli's main square. The assailant drew a pistol and shot the fighter in the chest, after being told he could not enter the square, said Rafa al-Mogherbi, a fighter who witnessed the shooting.