Libyan rebels rounded up at least 63 people in an ongoing bid to tighten security in the eastern city of Benghazi and rout armed groups loyal to Moamer Kadhafi, a spokesman told AFP.
“This morning we caught about 38 and later today more than 25,” Mustafa al-Sagazly said.
The arrests come hot on the heels of a five-hour raid on a roadside factory, which rebels said was the base of operations of an armed group taking orders from Kadhafi’s regime and suspected in the assassination of their army chief.
“Four of our fighters were killed in the operation,” said Sagazly.
He said five Kadhafi loyalists were also killed in the clashes.
Traffic in Benghazi returned to normal on the eve of Ramadan and there were signs on the streets in support of the rebel forces that carried out the raid by order of the ministry of interior.
“We all support the February 17 brigade,” read a banner hanging from a highway overpass in reference to one of the key forces behind the operation to dismantle the group that was blamed for prison breaks last week.
“There were high ranking prisoners of war” among those who escaped from two detention centers last week, February 17 brigade leader Ismail al-Salabi told reporters.
He said only a “small minority” escaped his brigade during the dawn raid.
The site of the fierce shoot-out that left surrounding residences pockmarked by bullets became a magnet for curious spectators during the day but by nightfall rebels had beefed up security in the area.
Security forces patrolled the streets late into the night as shoppers stocked up ahead of the of the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer.
“Everything is stable and secure tonight,” Sagazly said. “There are no confrontations.”
Rebels, he said, continued searching for members of the pro-Kadhafi group.
“Some of them run away and we are trying to catch them all over the city,” he said. “We are arresting them, that’s all.”
The NTC this week issued repeated warnings to militia groups –or kataebs — that remain outside its command to either join its fighters on the front or security forces in Benghazi.
Meanwhile British Defence Secretary Liam Fox said the murder of Yunis, attributed by the British press to Al-Qaeda elements within the rebel movement, remained a mystery and that militant influence within Libya was inevitable.
“It’s not yet clear who actually carried out the killing,” Fox said told BBC radio.
“Of course there are going to be militants in Libya — there are militants right across the whole of the Middle East — it would be a great surprise if there weren’t some in Libya itself,” he added.
Britain last week recognised the NTC as the legitimate Libyan government and Fox vowed Britain would continue to back the group despite the assassination.
While the rebels have been trying to quash rumours about the mysterious death of their army chief, the Kadhafi regime said Sunday it was in contact with members of the NTC.
“There are contacts with Mahmud Jibril (number two in the NTC), and (Ali) Essawy (in charge of external relations), (religious leader Ali) Sallabi and others,” deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaaim told reporters in Tripoli.
Kadhafi on Saturday night renewed his pledge “never to abandon” the battle, in an audio tape broadcast on state television despite NATO air strikes earlier the same day on the broadcaster’s headquarters in Tripoli.
Libya’s enemies would be “defeated in the face of the resistance and courage of the Libyan people,” he said in a speech following the strikes which Tripoli said killed three journalists.
South of Benghazi, rebels reported an attack by pro-Kadhafi forces on the southern oasis town of Jalo, but said it had been repulsed.
Rebels also promised a “surprise” in the strategic oil hub Brega.
“We are in the suburbs of Brega and I can see its lights sparkling in the short distance. Expect a surprise,” said Salabi.
On the western front in the five-month-old armed revolt, Libyan rebels on Sunday took the village of Josh at the foot of the Nafusa mountain range, AFP journalists said.
“We took Josh this morning and are now heading west. Now we’re fighting to take Tiji,” further down the valley, Juma Brahim, head of the rebel fighters’ operational command in the Nafusa region, told AFP.
He gave a casualty toll of three dead and four wounded.
The Nafusa region has seen heavy fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Kadhafi since the insurgents launched a major offensive this month in a drive on Tripoli.
NATO said its warplanes carried out 50 strike sorties on Saturday, with hits in the areas of Brega, Zliten, Waddan and Tripoli.
France said on Sunday it was committed to striking Kadhafi’s military assets for as long as needed for him to quit power, and called on Libyans in Tripoli to rise up against him.
“We say to Kadhafi that we will not ease our pressure and to his opponents that we will not abandon them,” French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet was quoted as saying by the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.
“Things have to move more in Tripoli… the population must rise up,” he added.