Libyan government steps up security after clashes in capital
By Barry Malone
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya's new government increased security in Tripoli Saturday with extra roadblocks and house-to-house searches after fighting in the capital with supporters of Muammar Gaddafi raised fears of another insurgency.
At most a few dozen pro-Gaddafi fighters appeared Friday in only a few neighborhoods of the Libyan capital that are known to be sympathetic to the deposed ruler.
But it was still the first sign of armed resistance to the National Transitional Council in Tripoli since its forces seized the city in August and ended Gaddafi's 42 years of one-man rule.
Government forces set up more roadblocks across the city, but especially in and around Abu Salim, an area of run-down apartment blocks where the clashes took place.
Pick-up trucks with heavy weapons were stationed inside the district, firing occasional volleys over the houses to make their presence felt. NTC foot soldiers searched the buildings, but there were no further clashes Saturday.
"During the war Gaddafi hid guns among the people here," said Ziyad, an NTC fighter. He said he and his comrades had found five AK-47 assault rifles hidden in a water tower on the top of one of the buildings and another two in the basement.
Residents said fighting broke out when a group of up to 50 armed men had appeared in Abu Salim, a repository of pro-Gaddafi sentiment, Friday and at least one other nearby neighborhood and chanted pro-Gaddafi slogans.
Hundreds of NTC fighters in pick-up trucks shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) raced into Abu Salim and the two sides exchanged rifle and heavy machinegun fire.
Two Gaddafi supporters and one NTC fighter were killed in the violence, NTC official Abdel Razak al Oraidi told a news conference in the capital.
Since he went into hiding after rebel forces captured Tripoli on August 23, Gaddafi has released a number of audio recordings calling on loyalists to fight back.
But the former strongman has not been seen and is thought to be hiding somewhere in the vast Libyan desert.
His supporters, however, are still holding out in his hometown Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast in the center of the country, and in Bani Walid, a small town southeast of Tripoli.
Government forces kept up their bombardment of a small area in the center of Sirte Saturday with Grad multiple rocket launchers, as well as tanks and anti-aircraft guns, but there was little sign of a major push under way from the infantry.
NTC militia have besieged Sirte for weeks, only slowly tightening their grip to the point where now Gaddafi die-hards are surrounded in an area of about two sq km (a sq mile). Green flags, the banner of Gaddafi's rule, still fly over the area.
The often chaotic struggle has cost scores of lives and left thousands homeless.
The failure to seize the final Gaddafi bastions swiftly has also held up attempts by Libya's new leaders to try to build a democratic government, a process they say will begin only after Sirte is captured.
"It is taking so long because the area is crowded with buildings and there is a large number of them; between 400 to 500 Gaddafi men," said Hussein Alteir, a brigade commander in Sirte.
The main NTC field hospital said it had received one dead and 11 wounded from the fighting Saturday.
NTC officers say Gaddafi loyalists fear reprisals if they surrender -- some captured fighters have been abused.
A Medecins Sans Frontieres doctor at Sirte's Ibn Sina hospital estimated there were still some 10,000 people marooned by the fighting in the city of 75,000 residents. Many of those trapped are women and children and some are sick or injured.
Yahia Alivi, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross at the same hospital, said: "Behind the front line, we have no news of the medical situation, but given the degree of fighting and shelling, if there are civilians there, the situation would be very very dire."
The ICRC is evacuating 40 wounded from the hospital, which for a time was on the front line of the fighting in Sirte. Many of its facilities are damaged by the fighting. At the back of the hospital six corpses were left on gurneys outside.
(Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal and Tim Gaynor in Sirte, Brian Rohan in Benghazi; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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