TRIPOLI (Reuters) - The armed men wearing the colours of Libya’s new government are everywhere, eyes darting side to side, some edgy, others excited, as they train anti-aircraft guns on Tripoli’s most pro-Gaddafi neighborhood.
But one local man takes a chance down a quiet side street. Pulling his car up alongside a foreign journalist, he jumps out with a message he wants to get across: “Gaddafi was better.”
He is nervous and his hands are shaking. Because he speaks little English he points to his pregnant wife in the car, who has a small girl playing on her lap and another beside her.
“Gaddafi,” she says with a thumbs-up. “Now no good, no water, no food for baby, nothing.”
Her husband rubs her belly. “Nothing,” he repeats in Arabic.
The Tripoli district of Abu Salim remains a hotbed of support for Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s ousted leader.
Abu Salim was the last area of Tripoli to fall to the forces of the now-ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) as they swept into the capital. And it was the scene Friday of fierce gunbattles between NTC fighters and dozens of Gaddafi loyalists hiding in its tower block jungle.
Though the clashes were small and isolated, they were the first since Tripoli fell to the NTC on August 23 and have left many wondering whether a pro-Gaddafi insurgency is possible.
NTC officials are keen to play that scenario down, with “just a small problem” a regular refrain.
But Saturday, scores of NTC fighters, laden down with machineguns, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons, circled the complex of flats where the violence was centred, indicating that the incident is one the country’s fledgling rulers are taking seriously.
“We didn’t like the way the NTC came yesterday, shooting at everything and everyone who was moving,” a 20-year-old resident who identified himself as Mohammed told Reuters.
“I support this revolution but acting like this -- one of them even tried to steal a car here yesterday -- will turn people in these areas against them.”
NTC fighters conducted house-to-house searches Saturday, clambering up the walls of the tower blocks that house some of Tripoli’s poorest inhabitants, peering into water tanks looking for concealed weapons.
“Gaddafi’s people came here and handed out weapons to everyone during the war,” Ali, a mechanic, said. “Every weapon you can imagine that a hand could carry, they gave us.”
Mohammed and his friends said the government fighters had arrested and taken away one woman because they found a green Gaddafi flag in her flat, and that they had shot a man dead for shouting pro-Gaddafi slogans last week. Neither claim could be immediately verified.
“It’s expressing an opinion,” Mohammed said. “Simply that. And you get killed? It’s wrong.”
The conduct of the armed men, many of them very young, now responsible for Libya’s security is of growing concern to human rights groups, who have accused them of mistreating thousands of pro-Gaddafi detainees and urged that they distance themselves from the crimes of the previous regime.
NTC officials appeal for patience and say it will take some time to set up a functioning judiciary, that fighters will be trained as police, that the new state will be a democracy with full respect for human rights.
But some analysts fear that resentment may fester in places like Abu Salim and boil over into more bloodshed.
Still, many people around the neighborhood Saturday professed themselves happy that Gaddafi was gone, some saying he was the reason the area had been poor for so long.
“I work for an oil company,” Mohammed said. “I know how much money there is in Libya. I know the riches. But we didn’t get any of them here. I saw no riches for myself.”
Other NTC supporters said that, while it was true that many in Abu Salim and in other traditionally pro-Gaddafi areas were sorry that he was gone after 42 years in power, they did not expect much more trouble from them.
“The few Gaddafi supporters who are left will see that he has run away (into hiding),” said Saleh, a shop owner. “When they see that, they will have to join the new Libya so that we have no gunbattles in future.”
As he spoke, NTC fighters unleashed a volley of anti-aircraft fire, sending it over the roofs of the flats -- a warning and a show of strength for any hostile residents inside.
Some children playing nearby did not flinch at all.
Editing by Mark Heinrich and Janet Lawrence