BRITISH warplanes struck a large bunker in Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, his largest remaining stronghold, as NATO turned its attention to loyalist forces trying to hold back advancing Libyan rebels in the area.
The airstrikes came a day after fierce clashes erupted in the Libyan capital, which remained tense as rebels hunted for the elusive leader and his allies, detaining suspected loyalists and raising concerns about human rights violations.
Rebels were searching yesterday for the remnants of pro-Gaddafi forces in Tripoli’s Abu Salim neighbourhood, which saw very heavy fighting the day before.
The rebels had detained seven men and one woman and loaded them into a pickup truck in a rural area between Abu Salim and the airport, saying Gaddafi forces might be trying to blend in with civilians.
“Things are still not stable and we are arresting anybody we find suspicious and taking them to the military council,” said field commander Fathi Shneibi.
Meanwhile, at a clinic attached to an Abu Salim fire station, injured men believed to be Gaddafi supporters or fighters were left moaning and calling for water. Curious neighbourhood men climbed the stairs to look at them, but none offered help.
One of the wounded said he was from Niger and denied any links to Gaddafi. Asked why he was in Libya, he said, “I really don’t know.” He did not give his name.
Signs also emerged that the situation can turn far worse.
Dozens of decomposing bodies were piled up in an abandoned Abu Salim hospital, a grim testament to the chaos roiling the capital.
It was not clear when the men had been killed. The floors were covered with shattered glass and bloodstains, and medical equipment was strewn about.
One room had 21 bodies lying on gurneys, with 20 more in a courtyard next to the parking lot – all of them darker skinned than most Libyans.Gaddafi had recruited fighters from sub-Saharan Africa, but many others from the region are in Libya as migrant workers.
Since the uprising began the rebels often suspect sub-Saharan Africans of being mercenaries.
Tripoli, meanwhile, enjoyed the quietest day yet since the rebel takeover, though pro-Gadhafi forces were shelling the airport and sporadic shooting was reported elsewhere in the metropolis of 2 million people.
At the first Friday prayers since Tripoli fell to the rebels, hundreds of people crowded a mosque in central Tripoli, listening as the imam praised the rebels for taking up arms against Gaddafi.
He said they had “liberated the land inch by inch, house by house, alley by alley,” using a famous phrase from a Gaddafi speech against the uprising.
The military alliance said NATO warplanes targeted 29 vehicles mounted with weapons near Sirte, a city of 150,000 about 400km east of the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Rebels are trying to advance toward Sirte but expect fierce resistance from tribesman and townspeople loyal to Gaddafi.
The rebel leadership, trying to avoid the bloodshed that occurred in the battle for Tripoli, has also been trying to secure Sirte’s surrender, but the two main tribes have rejected negotiation efforts.
Gaddafi denied his people basic rights, cracked down harshly on any hint of dissent and squandered the country’s vast oil and gas wealth.
Gaddafi has tried to rally his followers from hiding, calling on them in an audio appeal as recently as Thursday to fight and kill the rebels.
The two main tribes in Sirte, the Gadhadhfa and the Urfali, remain loyal to the Libyan leader, although many others have disavowed him since the uprising began in mid-February, inspired by a wave of Arab revolutions.
Mohammed al-Rajali, a spokesman for rebel fighters in the east, said the rebels were trying to reach out to smaller tribes in Sirte but no progress had been made.
But the latest NATO airstrikes on loyalist vehicles defending Sirte appeared aimed at paving the way for the rebel advance if a negotiated settlement proves impossible.
In London, British Defence Secretary Liam Fox said some elements of the Gaddafi regime were in Sirte “where they are still continuing to wage war on the people of Libya.”
He said NATO would continue to strike at pro-Gadhafi forces.