The Libyan capital saw its first major gunbattle since former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi fled Tripoli more than two months ago, as his supporters traded fire with revolutionary forces after a crowd raised the ousted regime’s green flag.
Fearing more attacks, anti- Qaddafi fighters set up checkpoints manned by young, armed men across the metropolis of about 2 million people, snarling traffic. They also rounded up several suspected African mercenaries, pulling them from cars and houses.
Friday’s violence in Tripoli and fierce resistance on two other fronts set back the new rulers’ stated goals of declaring total victory and establishing democracy as Qaddafi, the ruler for nearly 42 years, remains on the run.
The capital has been relatively calm since then-rebels swept into the city in late August, but Qaddafi’s loyalists have control of parts of his hometown of Sirte and the desert enclave of Bani Walid and have fought off NATO-backed revolutionary forces besieging them for weeks. Qaddafi has tried to rally his supporters with several audio recordings issued from hiding.
The firefight in Tripoli began after Friday prayers. Witnesses said dozens of loyalists carrying the green flag appeared on a square in the Abu Salim neighborhood, which has long been a pro-Qaddafi stronghold and houses a notorious prison of the same name.
Revolutionary forces started searching every building in the area and found weapons on some of the rooftops, many hidden under water tanks, Omar said. Then pro-Qaddafi snipers opened fire and the gunbattle began as anti-Qaddafi fighters chased loyalists around the closely packed buildings.
In amateur video shown to reporters, gunfire can be seen coming from the upper floors of apartment buildings surrounding the square, prompting revolutionary forces to scramble and begin shooting from the street below.
Shouting “God is great,” hundreds of revolutionary fighters converged on the area in pickups mounted with weapons. They set up checkpoints as heavy gunfire echoed through the streets.
Tripoli military officials said 12 suspected Qaddafi supporters were detained, but played down the shooting, saying no clashes occurred and that the gunfire was primarily from revolutionary forces themselves. The local military council issued a statement saying 30 people were injured in friendly fire.
US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also downplayed the seriousness of the fighting, calling it an “isolated, relatively small incident, by the sound of it.”
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