Armed supporters of ousted Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi have clashed with new government fighters in Tripoli, leaving three dead in the the first such battle since the capital fell to anti-Kadhafi forces.
Pro-Kadhafi gunmen on Friday took on fighters loyal to the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Abu Salim, a district around 10 kilometres (six miles) south of the city centre known to harbour supporters of the former Libyan leader.
Tripoli security official Abdelrazaq al-Aradi said that two Kadhafi loyalists and one NTC fighter were killed in the clashed while another 30 people were wounded.
Aradi, vice president of the security committee in the Libyan capital, told a news conference that around 50 armed Kadhafi supporters were behind the violence, 27 of whom, including four “African mercenaries,” were subsequently arrested.
It was the first fighting in the Libyan capital since it fell to anti-Kadhafi forces in August, and comes at a key moment in the eight-month conflict.
The new regime is hoping to proclaim the country’s liberation in the coming days, and prepare for the transition to an elected government, when NTC forces capture Kadhafi’s hometown of Sirte where diehard loyalists are making a determined last stand.
Forces from Libya’s new regime launched a fierce assault on two areas of Kadhafi’s hometown on Friday.
At least four people were killed and 46 wounded in Friday’s fighting in Sirte, said Abdulsalam Abdelkani, a medic at a field hospital in the east of the city.
An AFP correspondent said 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 districts.
Huge plumes of thick black smoke billowed above both neighbourhoods amid an intense grenade and mortar bombardment and almost continuous machinegun fire.
NTC fighters opened up with 130 mm cannons, after their troops eased back to allow for the bombardment.
The latest offensive in Sirte, 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.
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 head of Tripoli’s supreme military council, Abdelhakim Belhaj, pledged tough action against the pro-Kadhafi fighters and “dormant cells” of the former regime, which he said would be targeted in the clean-up operation launched on Friday.
In the capital Tripoli Abdel Rahman Bussin, the military spokesman for the new regime, told AFP that Friday’s fighting broke out in the Abu Salim district after pro-Kadhafi demonstrations.
He said Kadhafi supporters had also clashed with NTC fighters in other parts of the capital, without giving details. Residents in Abu Salim reported violence in Al-Hai al-Islami, west of the city centre.
A senior official in the military council said earlier that the fighting was “very limited” in scope and that the military had been brought under control by late afternoon.
Many roads in the capital were closed following the violence.
Residents said the Abu Salim protest began in the early afternoon, after Friday prayers, and was prompted by a call to rise from a pro-Kadhafi Libyan television presenter earlier in the week, in a message broadcast on Iraqi TV channel Al-Rai.
“We knew that pro-Kadhafi forces were going to come out today. We were prepared,” said Meftah, a young NTC fighter in Abu Salim.
The district, renowned for its prison, was the last area of the capital to witness resistance after NTC forces stormed the former leader’s sprawling and fortified Bab al-Aziziya headquarters on August 23.