Libyan rebels on Sunday 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 Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, a spokesman told Agence France-Presse.
“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 Qaddafi’s regime and suspected in the assassination of their army chief.
“Four of our fighters were killed in the operation,” Sagazly said.
He said five Qaddafi 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 interior ministry.
“We all support the Feb. 17 brigade,” a banner hanging from a highway overpass read in reference to one of the key forces behind the operation to dismantle the group that was blamed for prison breaks last week.
The shaken rebels are trying to rid their ranks of enemies after the assassination last week of their military chief, Abdel-Fattah Younis. The leadership insists the slaying was the work of Qaddafi’s regime, but several witnesses have said Younis was killed by fellow rebels.
As officials pieced together events leading up to Sunday’s firefight, they announced that a faction of fighters called al-Nidaa was actually made up of Qaddafi loyalists posing as rebels. The revelation could raise questions about the loyalty of other rebel factions and sap the movement of much-needed unity in its push to topple Qaddafi about six months after the revolt began.
Suspicions about al-Nidaa were confirmed, a rebel security leader said, when intelligence officials determined the group was behind two prison breaks on Friday in the rebels’ de facto capital of Benghazi. The prison breaks freed 200 to 300 inmates, including pro-Qaddafi mercenaries, fighters and other regime loyalists.
“These people took advantage of the chaos that resulted from the killing of Younis and entered and attacked the military prison and the [civilian] Kuwaitiya prison,” Sagazly.
On Sunday before dawn, rebel forces tracked al-Nidaa members to a factory where they were hiding out and sent in negotiators to try to persuade them to surrender. When they refused, the rebel units besieged the factory, killing four of the rebels, rebel media minister Mahmoud Shammam said.
A battlefield commander who participated in the operation, Ismail Salabi, said four of those posing as rebels were also killed and 25 were captured. He described them as Libyans from the southern part of the country who belonged to the Qaddafi Brigades.
“This is a hard hit for the fifth column,” he said.
Rebel forces also seized 40 of the freed prisoners, who were found hiding out with the fighters.
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 Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer.
“Everything is stable and secure tonight,” Sagazly said.