15 Die as Rebels Clash with Gadhafi Loyalists in Benghazi

Libya's rebels routed a militia group accused of assassinating their military chief and of links to Moammar Gadhafi, they said, after an hours-long battle Sunday in their Benghazi stronghold.

Medics and rebels said at least four rebel and 11 pro-Gadhafi fighters were killed in the fierce shootout, which erupted around dawn during a raid on the cell holed up at a roadside factory in the eastern city.

"It was a long battle and it took many hours because they were heavily armed," Mahmoud Shammam told Agence France Presse. "In the end we arrested 31 of them. We lost four people."

He said the group, which suffered "about 20 casualties," was rounded up for its role in organizing a prison break in Benghazi earlier in the week.

Rebel forces had surrounded the camp of the group linked to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi after they refused to obey an order from the rebels' National Transitional Council (NTC) for all militias to disband and lay down their arms.

The clash follows last week's assassination of rebel military chief General Abdul Fatah Younis, whose death remains cloaked in mystery. The general was a right-hand man to Gadhafi before his defection to the rebel ranks.

Farid Juwayli, head of security in Benghazi, said a rebel militia had uncovered the group linked to Gadhafi's regime holed up in a license plate factory.

Among them were several prisoners who had escaped in the prison break, the security chief said. The clash broke out after the suspects refused to surrender.

The group "had plans to plant car bombs in Benghazi," according to Mustafa al-Sagazly, deputy chief of the militia, the February 17 brigade. "We found a large number of explosives typically found in car bombs."

While the rebels have been trying to quash rumors about the mysterious death of their army chief, the Gadhafi regime said on Sunday that it was in contact with members of the NTC.

"There are contacts with Mahmoud Jibril (number two in the NTC), and (Ali) Essawy (in charge of external relations), (religious leader Ali) Sallabi and others," deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaaim told a Tripoli news conference.

Gadhafi on Saturday night renewed his pledge "never to abandon" the battle, in an audio tape broadcast on state television despite NATO air strikes earlier the same day on the broadcaster's headquarters in Tripoli.

Libya's enemies would be "defeated in the face of the resistance and courage of the Libyan people," he said in a speech following the strikes which Tripoli said killed three journalists.

The rebels, who have frequently denied having had any direct negotiations with Tripoli, sought to stamp out rumors by giving details on Younis' killing and bringing all militias under the control of the NTC interior ministry.

Meanwhile, the Benghazi villa of the murdered general was surrounded by checkpoints early on Sunday and no traffic allowed on the coastal city's main highway.

South of Benghazi, rebels reported an attack by pro-Gadhafi forces on the southern oasis town of Jalo, but said it had been repulsed.

On the western front in the five-month-old armed revolt, Libyan rebels on Sunday took the village of Josh at the foot of the Nafusa mountain range, AFP journalists said.

"We took Josh this morning and are now heading west. Now we're fighting to take Tiji," further down the valley, Juma Brahim, head of the rebel fighters' operational command in the Nafusa region, told AFP.

He gave a casualty toll of three dead and four wounded.

The Nafusa region has seen heavy fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Gadhafi since the insurgents launched a major offensive this month in a drive on Tripoli.

NATO said its warplanes carried out 50 strike sorties on Saturday, with hits in the areas of Brega, Zliten, Waddan and Tripoli.

France said on Sunday it was committed to striking Gadhafi's military assets for as long as needed for him to quit power, and called on Libyans in Tripoli to rise up against him.

"We say to Gadhafi that we will not ease our pressure and to his opponents that we will not abandon them," French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet was quoted as saying by the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.

"Things have to move more in Tripoli ... the population must rise up," he added.

Source: Agence France Presse

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