Libya power struggle tears apart Assabia

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Media captionIzzedine al-Ghool's death has become the focal point for anger in the town

An increasingly tense stand-off in the Libyan town of Assabia appears to have its roots in a struggle for control between rival militias.

Fighters in the nearby town of Gharyan say militias in Assabia, 50 miles south of Tripoli, continue to support the former regime. They say they will disarm them by force if necessary.

Armed groups in Assabia, for their part, have told the BBC they will not give up their weapons unilaterally.

Officials say 12 people were killed and around 100 injured in clashes between the two sides last weekend.

The BBC has seen more evidence of former Libyan rebel fighters torturing prisoners accused of loyalty to the Gaddafi regime.

'Beaten with chains'

The body of Izeddine al-Ghool was returned to his hometown of Assabia on Thursday.

A week ago this brigade commander was captured by members of a rival militia from Gharyan. Four days later his badly beaten body was delivered to a morgue in Tripoli.

He had been tortured to death.

His coffin was brought to Assabia hospital, where his widow had just given birth. His infant son, just one day old, was given his first and final glimpse of a father he will never know.

Ghool's torture was not an isolated case. In the same hospital we met Ibrahim Mohammed Ibrahim.

The student was one of more than 20 others captured by the same group of former anti-Gaddafi rebels from the town of Gharyan.

"They beat me with chains, sticks and metal pipes," he said as he pulled back his clothing to reveal extensive bruising on his legs, arms and buttocks.

"Even when I lost consciousness, they kept on beating me."

His captors accused him of loyalty to the former regime. But Mr Ibrahim said their real motive was simpler: power and greed.

"They want to get their hands on our land, our money, our property. They want to take everything and make us homeless. They want to wipe us off the map."

Growing resentment

Last weekend's clashes between the two towns were sparked by a seemingly minor incident: an argument over ownership of a car.

But in Libya's febrile post-revolutionary atmosphere events soon spiralled out of control, leaving 12 people dead and around a hundred wounded on both sides, according to local officials and hospital sources.

The authorities in Gharyan acknowledge their fighters had taken a number of prisoners, who have since been released. They say they will investigate claims of ill-treatment. When the BBC visited the town on Sunday, repeated requests for access to the prisoners were declined.

But in a remarkably frank interview, before the evidence of torture emerged, the deputy leader of Gharyan council, Jamal Belkheir, said officials were often powerless to control the former rebel brigades operating in the town.

"I don't want any fighting to happen," he told us. "But they just decide what they want to do and they do it."

Image caption Ibrahim Mohammed Ibrahim said he was beaten even when unconscious

In Assabia on Thursday hundreds of men lined up outside the mosque to pray before the body of Izzedine el-Ghool. His death has become the focal point for anger in the town.

As his body was lowered into the ground, fighters in green uniforms and red berets fired a volley of gunshots into the air. One former comrade collapsed, distraught with grief.

In public, most people say they are fully behind the revolution, and that they retain no loyalty to the former regime.

But a Ukrainian doctor working in the local hospital, who had stayed in Assabia throughout the fighting last year, told us many had fought hard on Col Gaddafi's side.

Whatever the town's allegiance now, it is clear there is growing resentment between Assabia and Gharyan. Militias on both sides remain heavily armed.

The Chairman of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, warned earlier this month that Libya could slide into civil war, if the country's militias are not disarmed.

But in Assabia, fighters say the latest clashes have made people less, not more likely to hand in their guns.

"We won't give up our weapons until Libya's other cities give up their weapons too," said Abdelmajid Mgatf, a commander from Izzedine el-Ghool's former brigade.

"If we are forced to disarm before everyone else, an injustice will be done. Assabia's armed forces will not accept that."

And so the stand-off continues.

And the longer it does, the greater is the danger that grief, anger and rivalries - some of them decades old - will spill over into more fighting.

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