Tripoli: Supporters of ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi seized control of the town of Bani Walid on Monday after clashes with a militia loyal to the new government in which four people were killed, witnesses said.
A resident of Bani Walid, about 200 km (120 miles) south-east of Tripoli, said the sides fought using heavy weaponry, including 106 mm anti-tank weapons, and that 20 people were wounded.
Another witness said the fighting had now stopped but that Gaddafi loyalists were in control of the town centre, where they were flying green flags, a symbol of allegiance to the ousted administration.
"They control the town now. They are roaming the town," said the witness, a fighter with the 28th May militia which was fighting the Gaddafi loyalists.
Bani Walid, base of the powerful Warfallah tribe, was one of the last towns in Libya to surrender to the anti-Gaddafi rebellion last year. Many people there oppose the country`s new leadership.
The uprising in Bani Walid could not come at a worse time for the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC). It is already reeling from violent protests in the eastern city of Benghazi and the resignation of its second most senior official.
An air force official said that jets were being mobilized to fly to Bani Walid. In Tripoli, there were signs of security being tightened, reporters in the city said.
The violence in Bani Walid was sparked when members of the May 28 militia arrested some Gaddafi loyalists.
That prompted other supporters of the former leader, who was captured and killed in October, to attack the militia`s garrison in the town, said the resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"They massacred men at the doors of the militia headquarters," said the resident.
During Libya`s nine-month civil war, anti-Gaddafi rebels fought for months to take Bani Walid.
Local tribal elders eventually agreed to let NTC fighters enter the town, but relations have been uneasy since and there have been occasional flare-ups of violence.
In November last year, several people were killed in Bani Walid when a militia group from Tripoli`s Souq al-Juma district arrived in the town to try to arrest some local men.
Taking back control of the town will be challenging because it has natural defenses. Anyone approaching from the north has to descend into a deep valley and then climb up the other side, giving defenders an advantage.
It was this landscape, in part, that prevented anti-Gaddafi militias from taking the town during the civil war, despite the fact they were heavily armed and had superior numbers.