ABU HADI, Libya -- After capturing this hamlet, a center for Moammar Gadhafi's tribe, revolutionary fighters have gone on a vengeance spree, looting and burning homes and making off with gold, furniture and even automobiles.
Other fighters are trying to persuade them to stop and have sought to protect the tribesmen of the ousted leader. As a result, the rampage in Abu Hadi, a suburb of Gadhafi's home city of Sirte, has underscored a geographical split among the forces loyal to Libya's new interim government.
Most of those looting homes are unorganized, volunteer bands of gunmen from the city of Misrata, to the west, which was brutalized in a bloody siege by Gadhafi's forces during the nearly 7-month uprising against his rule. Trying to rein them in are revolutionaries from eastern Libya, which shook off Gadhafi's rule early and have since had time to organize their forces.
"The Misrata fighters came into the revolution with a sense of bitterness and anger," Breiga al-Maghrabi, an eastern fighter, said Wednesday. "They want revenge for what happened to them in Misrata."
"Look – it's Ali Baba," he told an Associated Press reporter as he cruised streets of Abu Hadi in his pickup truck. He pointed at a residential street where a number of revolutionaries walked out of a home with belongings in their arms. The looters loaded a white Chrysler on the back of a truck and drove away with it.
The capture of Abu Hadi earlier this week was a key step in the revolutionaries' weeks-long siege of Sirte, the most important of the pro-Gadhafi cities that are still holding out against Libya's new rulers. Abu Hadi lies to the south of Sirte, and with revolutionary fighters already on the eastern and western sides of the city – and the Mediterranean Sea lying on its northern side – that means Gadhafi loyalists inside Sirte are now trapped.
The loyalists in the city center have been putting up a powerful defense for three weeks now, and on Wednesday the two sides traded artillery, tank and mortar shelling. Still, a spokesman for the revolutionaries' Defense Ministry, Col. Ahmed Bani, vowed on Wednesday that its forces "will be able to completely dominate Sirte in the next few days."
Deputy Defense Minister Fawzy Abu Kataf said it would take two days of heavy shelling to uproot the remaining pro-Gadhafi fighters in the city. But he said revolutionary fighters were holding off on an all-out assault to allow residents to leave.
Abu Hadi, a center of the ousted leader's Gadhadhfa tribe 10 miles (16 kilometers) from downtown Sirte, was a ghost town. Streets were littered with bullet casings, and black smoke billowed from four homes that had been set ablaze by fighters. Many of the homes laid out in rows in the residential complexes had been broken into, with wooden doors busted, stoves and refrigerators overturned, baby clothes and homework strewn all over the floors.
Fathi al-Shobash, an eastern revolutionary, said that when he tried to stop Misrata fighters from raiding homes, they would push him away and say this was their time to treat the Gadhadhfas the way they were treated by their leader. Gadhafi drew heavily on the Gadhadhfa and other loyalist tribes for his military and other key parts of his regime.
"I came to sincerely fight for freedom and my one goal is to rid Libya of Moammar Gadhafi," said al-Shobash. "Why take it out on innocent people from his tribe?"
The tensions between east and west have begun to percolate on a national level as the interim government – set up by easterners – tries to solidify its authority after the fall of Tripoli and Gadhafi's ouster in late August. Already, some in the west have rankled at what they see as attempts by easterners to dominate.
Eastern Libya was the first to rise up in February and set up a quasi-state with a de facto capital in Benghazi, the country's second largest city. That gave them more time to organize their forces, creating a command structure and a degree of discipline in the ranks.
In contrast, western cities faced heavier crackdowns by Gadhafi's forces that kept them divided. Misrata was battered by a siege that was repelled after weeks of bloody street fighting. Western cities have formed brigades of volunteer fighters that have been criticized for being disorganized and acting like armed gangs.
"We ask them, 'Who is your commander,' and they say 'We don't have one,'" al-Maghrabi said of the western revolutionaries at Abu Hadi. "Many are just armed and running around taking out their anger on the homes here."
The tensions erupted at a checkpoint at an Abu Hadi roundabout held by Benghazi fighters. Scuffles broke out when a Misrata fighter refused to take orders from the Benghazi revolutionary.
"You divided the country, admit it – you divided it," the Misrata man shouted at the Benghazi fighter as other revolutionaries tried to pull them apart.
One Misrata revolutionary, Abdullah Faisal, denied men from his city were behind the looting, insisting eastern fighters had let a "fifth column" slip in.
Col. Bashir Abu Thafeera, who commands a brigade of eastern fighters at Abu Hadi, said the Misratans' thirst for vengeance was understandable, given the brutality of the Gadhafi siege of their city.
"They suffered a lot at the beginning of this revolution, and this is also the reaction of 42 years of oppression under Gadhafi," Abu Thafeera told the AP. He said many of the homes that were burned were believed to belong to Gadhafi loyalists who participated in the Misrata siege.
Still, he warned that the same looting could erupt in Sirte itself when it falls. He said eastern fighters would try to move into Sirte more quickly to take control to prevent looting and vengeance attacks.
Most of Abu Hadi's residents fled last week during the fighting before its capture. Families packed up what they could and set up a tent camp several miles away. Abu Thafeera said his troops were trying to ensure their safety so they could return.
One resident, Saada Gheit, came to look in on her home and found it looted. "They took my gold, raided my closets. I don't know why they are taking out their anger on us," she told the AP.
The 47-year-old Gheit and 10 other families have taken refuge in another house nearby. Gheit on Wednesday cooked a meal in a giant cauldron over a bonfire in the courtyard as children ran around nearby. She said her family car was packed with blankets and clothing in case they need to flee again.
"All we can do is run from place to place," she said. "They don't like Moammar Gadhafi, but what was our crime?"
By HADEEL AL-SHALCHI 10/ 5/11
04:31 PM ET