WRAPUP 3-Gaddafi gunmen, govt forces clash in Libyan capital

Fri Oct 14, 2011 11:51am EDT

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(Releads with armed clashes in Tripoli)

* Pro-Gaddafi gunmen fight govt troops in Tripoli

* Hundreds of NTC fighters pour into the area

* One captured man stabbed by NTC fighter

* Pocket of pro-Gaddafi resistance holding out in Sirte

By Barry Malone

TRIPOLI, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Gunfights broke out in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Friday between dozens of supporters of deposed leader Muammar Gaddafi and forces of the new government.

It was the first sign of armed resistance to the NTC in the city since its rebel brigades seized the capital and ended 42 years of one-man rule in August. Though the battles were small and casualties seemed light, it raised concerns the interim government could face an insurgency by Gaddafi loyalists.

Hundreds of National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters in pick-up trucks shouting "Allahu Akbar" careered towards the Abu Salim neighbourhood, a centre of support for Gaddafi and the two sides exchanged automatic and heavy machinegun fire.

Local people told a Reuters correspondent at the scene that a group of up to 50 armed men had appeared in Abu Salim earlier in the day and had chanted pro-Gaddafi slogans. NTC men said fighting also broke out in three other nearby neighbourhoods.

"Gaddafi 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."

The former leader has released a number of audio recordings calling on loyalists to fight back: "I urge all Libyan people to go out and march in their millions in all the squares, in all the cities and villages and oases," he said earlier this month.

"Go peacefully ... be courageous, rise up, go to the streets, raise our green flags to the skies."

NTC fighters dragged one man out of an apartment block in Abu Salim, a traditional bastion of support for Gaddafi. As he was kicked and punched, one of the NTC men plunged a knife into the prisoner's back. It was unclear if it was a fatal blow.

The captured man had been armed with a rocket-propelled grenade, said NTC fighters, whose forces have been criticised by human rights groups for their treatment of prisoners.

Three other pro-Gaddafi gunmen were also captured in the Abu Salim neighbourhood, NTC commanders said. Dominated by apartment blocks, it was one of the places last to fall to the new government when it took the city 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 Gaddafi gunmen. Shooting died down later in the afternoon.

SIRTE STILL HOLDING OUT

There are still two towns where Gaddafi supporters are holding out; Sirte, on the coast in the centre of the country, where a small pocket is battling on after weeks of fighting, and Bani Walid, a small town inland from Tripoli.

Government forces pushed tanks deep into Sirte on Friday to try to smash the last pocket of resistance by Gaddafi loyalists in his home town.

The mostly untrained NTC militia army has gradually tightened its strangle-hold around Sirte in a chaotic struggle that has cost scores of lives and left thousands homeless.

It has also held up the attempt by Libya's new leaders to try to build a democratic government, as they say the process will begin only after the city is captured.

NTC commanders say Gaddafi's die-hard loyalists now only control an area measuring about 700 metres (yards) north to south, and around 1.5 km (a mile) east to west in a residential neighbourhood mostly of apartment blocks.

"We are going to engage them with tanks and heavy artillery first. After that we will send in the pick-up trucks with anti-aircraft guns, then the infantry," said Abdul Hadi Doghman, commander of the Dat al-Ramal brigade, one of the many loosely organised militias besieging the trapped Gaddafi forces.

The biggest obstacle to taking the town has been Gaddafi's snipers hiding in the buildings. Tanks are used to hit the buildings from close range and dislodge the sharpshooters.

Green flags, the banner of Gaddafi's rule, flew above many of the buildings in the loyalist enclave. An occasional sniper shot zipped past as the government forces cleaned their weapons and prepared to do battle another day.

But there was no extra build-up of troops on Friday and the NTC forces did not appear to be preparing for a final push.

Gaddafi himself is believed to be hiding somewhere in the vast Libyan desert.

Gaddafi's encircled forces in Sirte can have no hope of victory, but still fight on, inflicting dozens of casualties with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small arms.

One field hospital received two dead NTC fighters and 23 wounded on Thursday. One of those killed had been hit while taking food up to the fighters on the front line, doctors said.

FEAR OF REPRISALS

One NTC commander said Gaddafi's forces were no longer using heavier weapons and appeared to have lost their cohesion.

"We've noticed now they are fighting every man for himself," said Baloun al-Sharie, a field commander. "We tried to tell them it's enough and to give themselves up, but they would not."

NTC officers say Gaddafi loyalists fear reprisals if they surrender -- some captured fighters have been roughed up, as Reuters' correspondent witnessed in Tripoli on Friday.

Amnesty International issued a report on Wednesday saying Libya's new rulers were in danger of repeating human rights abuses commonplace under Gaddafi. The NTC said it would look into the report.

NTC forces found 25 corpses wrapped in plastic sheets near the Sirte battle zone on Wednesday. They accused Gaddafi militias of carrying out execution-style killings. Five corpses shown to a Reuters team wore civilian clothes, had their hands tied behind their backs and gunshot wounds to the head. (Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal and Tim Gaynor in Sirte; Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Alastair Macdonald)

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