A gun battle broke out in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Friday between 20 to 50 armed supporters of deposed leader Muammar Qaddafi and forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC), a Reuters witness and residents said.
NTC fighters mounted on pick-up trucks raced towards the scene in the Abu Salim neighborhood, a center of support for Qaddafi. The two sides exchanged automatic and heavy machinegun fire, the Reuters witness said.
Local residents said the group of armed men had appeared in Abu Salim earlier and had begun chanting pro-Qaddafi slogans.
“Qaddafi told them in a message last night to rise up after Friday prayers,” said an NTC fighter, Abdullah. “That’s why these few people have come out and are causing this problem.”
Qaddafi has released a number of audio recordings calling on loyalists to fight the new government which ousted him from power when its forces captured Tripoli two months ago.
“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 in one such message earlier this month.
“Go peacefully ... be courageous, rise up, go to the streets, raise our green flags to the skies,” Qaddafi said.
Fighting in Sirte
Forces from Libya’s new regime, meanwhile, launched an intensive assault on two areas of Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, bombarding his diehards with artillery, mortars and rockets, AFP reported.
Their latest offensive, aimed at mopping up remaining pockets of stiff resistance, came a day after NTC combatants were forced to withdraw under a hail of withering sniper fire.
An AFP correspondent said that shortly before 1:00 pm (1100 GMT), a large column of NTC forces, some in trucks and some on foot, pushed out of the central police HQ towards loyalist positions in the Dollar and Number Two neighborhoods.
“Qaddafi snipers are trapped in area Number Two and we surround them. Right now, we are shooting randomly just to frighten them, but a lot of snipers changed their positions last night,” said Mustafa al-Abyad, an NTC commander.
Huge plumes of thick black smoke billowed above both neighborhoods amid an intense grenade and mortar bombardment and almost continuous machinegun fire.
NTC scouts had earlier probed loyalist defenses, advancing as far as two kilometers (just over a mile) west from the central police headquarters before pulling back.
They had remained there overnight after retreating there under heavy fire on Thursday.
Advancing NTC troops seized a school on the edge of the Dollar neighborhood from which it launched a heavy bombardment. The 100-strong force came under intense return fire.
NTC fighters later opened up with 130 mm cannons, after their troops pulled back a bit to allow for the bombardment.
Defiant Qaddafi fighters in the two areas of northwest Sirte have been staging a fierce last stand that has put paid to NTC hopes of a swift mop-up.
“They are shooting at us. They have good positions in buildings and they have snipers,” said NTC fighter Amed al-Figi from Misrata.
“We are making progress but it is difficult.”
Ahead of the latest assault, one fighter at the police HQ was dismissive of the Qaddafi hold-outs.
“We still have to clean some rubbish that is left in the city. We are waiting for orders. Very soon the Sirte battle will be over, but the Libyan war will be over only with the capture of Qaddafi,” Abdul Salam Farjani said.
NTC commanders said on Thursday the Qaddafi remnants were cornered within about two square kilometers (500 acres) of the city.
An AFP journalist reported at least two regime fighters killed in Friday’s fighting and around 15 wounded, some gravely and several by shrapnel.
Four NTC fighters were killed on Thursday, including two by friendly fire, and another 40 were wounded, mostly by snipers, said Rawad Friwan, a surgeon at a field hospital on Sirte’s western outskirts.
Sirte is a key goal for the NTC, which has said it will not proclaim Libya’s liberation and begin preparing for the transition to an elected government until the city has fallen.
The regime began its siege of Sirte on Sept.15 before launching what it termed a “final assault” last Friday that has seen at least 95 of its fighters killed and hundreds wounded, according to medics.
NATO said that warplanes on Thursday hit four military vehicles and a multiple rocket launcher in the other remaining Qaddafi bastion of Bani Walid, an oasis town southeast of the capital.
A top adviser of NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil, meanwhile, backtracked on his announcement that they had captured Qaddafi’s feared son and national security chief Mutassim in Sirte, after it was denied by military commanders.
“There was some confusion about the reports of Mutassim’s capture,” Abdelkarim Bizama said. “As soon as we have confirmation, there will be an official announcement of his arrest.”
However, regime fighters said they did capture the Qaddafi regime’s top cleric as he tried to flee Sirte on Wednesday with his beard shaved off.
Khaled Tantoosh, Libya’s mufti under Qaddafi, made broadcasts in his support through the long uprising that ended the despot's 42-year rule.
Meanwhile, NTC oil minister Ali Tarhuni vowed Libya would investigate “every penny” of suspect oil contracts signed under Qaddafi’s regime, which was responsible for what he called “unbelievable” corruption.
“There will be specialized committees that will look into all these contracts and agreements, starting with the oil sector,” Tarhuni said, without giving details on contracts or companies.
Libya’s oil production, which collapsed after the uprising in February, is expected to rise to nearly one million barrels per day by April from the current 400,000, according to the state-run National Oil Co.