Middle East

Libyan Forces Search Tripoli for Qaddafi Loyalists

Revolutionary fighters sit on a truck mounted with a machine gun in the Abu Salim neighborhood of Tripoli, Libya, Friday, Oct. 14, 2011.

Revolutionary fighters sit on a truck mounted with a machine gun in the Abu Salim neighborhood of Tripoli, Libya, Friday, Oct. 14, 2011.  (AP2011)

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) -- Libyan fighters fanned out in Tripoli neighborhoods Saturday to search for armed supporters of fugitive leader Muammar Qaddafi a day after a major gunbattle rocked the capital for the first time in two months.

Dozens of men combed apartment buildings for suspects and weapons in the Abu Salim neighborhood, which is home to the prison of the same name that became notorious for the abuse and killing of Qaddafi opponents. A day earlier, a gunbattle broke out in the area when a group tried to raise the green flag that symbolizes the ousted regime.

Revealing serious divisions within the revolutionary ranks, Saturday's sweep of Abu Salim was being conducted mainly by a breakaway militia that refuses to answer to the main Tripoli military council.

It is one of many factions that have refused to put themselves under the umbrella of official revolutionary authorities, raising fears of vigilante justice as the North African nation faces continued fighting by loyalists of the fugitive leader.

One anti-Qaddafi fighter stomped on a green flag as others searched vehicles. Another showed off a box stuffed with bullets he said was found in a second-floor apartment in one of the residential buildings.

Abdullah Naker, the head of the so-called revolutionary council, called on all anti-Qaddafi forces to join them in the search and warned his men will fight anybody who gets in their way.

"All of Tripoli will be searched and we will reorganize our checkpoints and our guards in public and private institutions inside of Tripoli and outside of Tripoli," he told reporters.

He said eight wanted men and 12 other suspects were arrested. He also alleged that teachers have been telling students that Qaddafi will return and said teams had been sent to stop the practice.

"We gave the military council a chance to prove themselves and they failed, and we will not leave things to chance," he said.

A senior Interior Ministry official, Ibrahim al-Bargathi, said Friday's skirmish started when a group of some 30 people, including eight women and some armed men, started walking with green flags. Local opponents began fighting with them, then revolutionary forces swarmed into the area from across the city, he said.

He said six people were injured and 14 were captured -- nine men and five women.

It was the first major violence in Tripoli between Qaddafi supporters and revolutionary forces since the then-rebels swept into the capital in late August and forced the longtime leader into hiding. The tensions suggest Libyans face grave challenges in trying to reconcile after months of bitter civil war.

The flare-up in Tripoli and fierce resistance on two other fronts have set back the new rulers' stated goals of declaring total victory and establishing democracy. It also raised fears of a protracted insurgency as Qaddafi, the ruler for nearly 42 years, remains on the run.

The capital has been relatively calm since then-rebels swept into the city two months ago. But Qaddafi's loyalists have control of parts of his hometown of Sirte and the desert enclave of Bani Walid and have fought off NATO-backed revolutionary forces besieging them for weeks. Qaddafi has tried to rally his supporters with several audio recordings issued from hiding.

The firefight in Tripoli began after Friday prayers. Witnesses said dozens of loyalists carrying green flags appeared on a square in the Abu Salim neighborhood, which has long been a pro-Qaddafi stronghold. Residents also reported fighting in several other areas known to still hold loyalists of the former leader.

Interim leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the governing National Transitional Council, had hoped to declare liberation this week after what he expected would be the imminent fall of the holdout city of Sirte, Qaddafi's hometown, 250 miles southeast of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast. That could allow the council to name a new interim government and set a timeline for holding elections within eight months.

The revolutionary forces control much of Sirte after launching a major push a week ago but still face heavy resistance.