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Libyan forces clash with gunmen in Tripoli

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MISURATA, Libya — A gun battle broke out Friday between supporters and opponents of ousted leader Moammar Gaddafi, in some of the worst political violence in the Libyan capital since his government was toppled two months ago.

Truckloads of revolutionary gunmen clutching automatic rifles roared off to the Tripoli neighborhood of Abu Salim after reports emerged of a group of armed people there waving the green flag of Gaddafi’s government.

Although authorities said the clash proved relatively minor, it unnerved residents still fearful of Gaddafi, whose repressive rule lasted 42 years and who remains at large. The sound of semiautomatic fire echoed across the city, and reports spread of gunfights in other areas of the city.

“Gaddafi’s still alive, so the world is still in danger,” said Col. Ahmed Bani, spokesman for Libya’s new Defense Ministry.

Officials and witnesses offered varying versions of how the conflict began. Col. Ahmed Barati, head of the country’s military police, said authorities had received intelligence on Thursday of a planned attack by Gaddafi loyalists in Abu Salim, one of the last neighborhoods to fall to the rebels in August. He said a group of Gaddafi supporters was waving green flags and firing weapons when forces supporting the new government arrived.

The Associated Press quoted a witness who gave a somewhat different version, saying snipers opened fire on revolutionary forces after they arrived at the protest, triggering the battle. The anti-Gaddafi forces discovered weapons on the rooftops of buildings on the street, the news service said.

Barati said six of the Gaddafi loyalists had been arrested. He had no reports of casualties. But Reuters news service said a revolutionary soldier plunged a knife into the back of one man dragged out of an apartment building in Abu Salim, who had been captured holding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

There were reports of gunfire in other parts of the city, including around the seaside Radisson Blu hotel popular with foreign diplomats and journalists, but authorities could not confirm they came from actual clashes. Tripoli is awash in weapons looted from government storehouses after Gaddafi’s regime collapsed, and many revolutionary fighters think nothing of shooting off a few rounds for their own amusement.

Tripoli has been largely calm since anti-Gaddafi forces swept into the city in August and quickly won control. The U.S. and other embassies have reopened and some business people and teachers are starting to return. But the interim government’s control is still tenuous, with heavily armed militias from different regions of the country dominating different neighborhoods.

Pro-Gaddafi forces are still holed up in the cities of Sirte and Bani Walid, defying weeks of bombardment by revolutionary forces backed by NATO airstrikes. Most observers say they believe the cities will fall soon, even as Gaddafi has sought to rally his followers with tape-recorded messages from hiding.

Libyan officials said that Friday’s clash did not signify a major security threat, but that Gaddafi’s supporters remain a problem.

“They are like snakes, staying calm and then attacking,” Bani said.

Special correspondent Ayman al-Kekly contributed to this report.

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