TRIPOLI — British warplanes struck a large bunker Friday in Moammar Gadhafi’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 i
n 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 Friday for the remnants of pro-Gadhafi forces in Tripoli’s Abu Salim neighborhood, 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 Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi supporters or fighters were left moaning and calling for water. Curious neighborhood 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 Gadhafi. 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. Gadhafi had recruited fighters from sub-Saharan Africa, but many others from the region are in Libya as migrant workers.
It was not clear who had killed the men, but since the uprising began the rebels often suspect sub-Saharan Africans of being mercenaries.
A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Steven Anderson, said the neutral aid group was concerned about the treatment of detainees on both sides in Tripoli. He declined to discuss specific examples, though, saying any findings are discussed confidentially with those involved.
The Geneva-based ICRC has been able to visit some prisoners on both sides, said Anderson, but “there are hundreds more probably.”
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 Gadhafi. He said they had “liberated the land inch by inch, house by house, alley by alley,” using a famous phrase from a Gadhafi speech against the uprising.
Hearing the phrase, worshippers laughed or shouted “Allahu Akbar!”
Afterward, the worshippers marched out chanting in support of revolution. “Hold your head high, you are a free Libyan,” some shouted.
There had been a plan to hold prayers at the Martyr Square, which was called Green Square under Gadhafi’s regime, but it was littered with bullet casings and trash so worshippers decided to hold the service at a nearby mosque.
Mahmoud Shammam, a spokesman for the rebel council, told reporters in Tripoli that the rebel government had begun shifting from Benghazi to Tripoli, taking over official buildings and setting up a security committee.
He also said some people from Gadhafi’s regime would be included in the new government.
“The only people we are going to exclude are the people who killed others and stole money,” Shammam said in Tripoli.
The military alliance said NATO warplanes targeted 29 vehicles mounted with weapons near Sirte, a city of 150,000 about 250 miles (400 kilometers) east of the Libyan capital of Tripoli. Rebels are trying to advance toward Sirte but expect fierce resistance from tribesman and townspeople loyal to Gadhafi.
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.
Gadhafi denied his people basic rights, cracked down harshly on any hint of dissent and squandered the country’s vast oil and gas wealth.
But tribal loyalties are strong in the desert nation of 6 million. Gadhafi also seeded supporters in key posts and built up militias and armed “revolutionary committees” to be the final line of support for him and his powerful sons if regular military forces defected.
Gadhafi 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 Defense Secretary Liam Fox said some elements of the Gadhafi 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.
“The regime needs to recognize that the game is up,” Fox said.
Maj. Gen. Nick Pope, a British military spokesman, said royal Air Force jets also hit a large headquarters bunker in Sirte with a salvo of air-to-surface missiles.
NATO also bombed surface-to-air missile facilities near the Tunisian border, a statement said.
The Tripoli airport was under rebel control but faced regular shelling from pro-Gadhafi forces to the east. At least three planes were burned in heavy shelling overnight, although the airport otherwise appeared largely intact, with a dozen other passenger planes on the tarmac.
“NATO is bombing those guys but they are still shelling from the east of the airport,” Nasser Amer, a civil aviation official told The Associated Press. Amer, a former pilot, traveled to Tripoli to try to get the airport running again.
Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard and Paul Schemm in Tripoli, Frank Jordans in Geneva, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi, Libya, contributed to this report.