TRIPOLI, Libya — The chief of Libya's former rebels arrived in Tripoli on Saturday, greeted by a boisterous red carpet ceremony meant to show he's taking charge of the interim government replacing the ousted regime of Moammar Gadhafi.
But even as Libya's new leaders tried to consolidate control over the vast country, Gadhafi loyalists pushed back hard against an assault on the town of Bani Walid, one of Gadhafi's remaining strongholds, in a sign that the battle is far from over.
Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the anti-Gadhafi forces' National Transitional Council, landed Saturday at an air force base on the outskirts of Tripoli. A faded red carpet was rolled out, and hundreds of fighters and officials in suits rushed toward the plane as he walked down the steps. Some flashed victory signs or shouted "God is great."
Abdul-Jalil was mobbed by the crowd as he tried to make his way to the air force building. A fistfight broke out between two men after Abdul-Jalil was rushed inside, and one waved his pistol in the air. Other men trying to shove their way in knocked over a metal detector and a large potted plant.
After meeting with local leaders inside, Abdul-Jalil called for unity among Libyans to finish the fight against Gadhafi loyalists. He also called for forgiveness to allow Libyans to rebuild the country.
"This is not the time for retribution. This is not the time for taking matters into your own hands. Many rights have been lost and many tragedies have occurred," he said. "We have to realize that Moammar Gadhafi is not done yet and we must direct all our means to liberate the rest of the cities."
Abdul-Jalil's arrival was meant to show that the former rebels are getting ready to establish their government in the capital. Until now, most of leaders of the anti-Gadhafi movement had been based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
"It's a day that shows Libya is finally in the hands of its people," said Abdullah Gzema, an NTC member from the coastal city of Zawiya. "We know we have nothing ahead of us but challenges. The challenge now is to organize the state and that will be harder than the military campaign."
Ahmed Darrad, the NTC's interior minister, took the disorderly welcome for Abdul-Jalil in stride. "We expected that he would get a popular reception, but we didn't expect it to be quite to this extent," he said, smiling.
Revolutionary forces entered Tripoli on Aug. 21, six months after the uprising against Gadhafi began.
The fall of Tripoli effectively sealed the fate of Gadhafi's regime, but Abdul-Jalil stayed away from the capital until Saturday. His prolonged absence had raised questions about the former rebels' ability to take charge.
Officials close to Abdul-Jalil cited security concerns as one of the reasons.
While anti-Gadhafi forces have driven armed loyalists out of Tripoli, the security situation remains shaky. The capital has been flooded with weapons, including those in the hands of civilians.
Earlier Saturday, as reporters waited for Abdul-Jalil's arrival at the air force base, a group of fighters escorted a wooden coffin to a nearby plane. The coffin carried a fighter who was killed Friday by a young civilian in Tripoli's main square. The assailant drew a pistol and shot the fighter in the chest after being told he could not enter the square, said Rafa al-Mogherbi, a fighter who witnessed the shooting.
Anti-Gadhafi forces control much of Libya, but have had trouble driving loyalists out of three strongholds, including the town of Bani Walid, where fierce fighting raged Saturday. From hiding, the fugitive Gadhafi has exhorted loyalists to keep fighting in audio messages.
On Saturday night, a radio station in Bani Walid rebroadcast Gadhafi's last recording, in which he urged his followers to rise up and fight, saying "this is the zero hour."
"Shame on you if you don't fight. If you don't fight, you will go to hell," he said in the message, which was repeatedly replayed on the station.
Revolutionary forces and regime loyalists had been engaged in off-and-on surrender talks in Bani Walid, a town about 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, for more than a week.
On Saturday afternoon, anti-Gadhafi fighters in a desert valley some two miles (three kilometers) from Bani Walid came under heavy attack from loyalists. Mortar rounds struck the area, releasing clouds of dust and smoke. Snipers also targeted rebel fighters, as ambulances sped up and down the main road into town.
Loud explosions and the roar of NATO aircraft were heard, indicating the alliance was aiding the rebel advance in Bani Walid. The NATO air campaign, begun in March under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians, has continued since Gadhafi's fall.
Some said disagreements broke out over which group of fighters should lead the assault on Bani Walid. The town is a base of the Warfala tribe, one of Libya's largest.
Bassam Turki, 33, a fighter from Tripoli, said he was told by comrades from Bani Walid that they wanted to drive out the Gadhafi loyalists without the help of forces from other towns. "If Bani Walid (fighters) could liberate the city without our help, why didn't they do this a long time ago?" he said angrily.Comment on this story
At least two anti-Gadhafi fighters were killed, said Abdullah Kanshil, a negotiator with the former rebels. The commander of the assault, Daw Salaheen, called on the city's residents to lay down their arms, saying anyone who does so will be "safe in our hands."
Volunteers asking to join the battle said Saturday they were getting increasingly impatient with the standoff. Dozens crowded around a desk at a mosque in Wishtata, a hamlet about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Bani Walid, to register their names, blood type and other information.
Abdel Wahab Milad, a 26-year-old teacher from the town of Gharyan, drove dozens of miles to the front in a pickup truck with six friends. Dressed in army fatigues, he said he signed up for battle because it was time to "get rid of Gadhafi once and for all."
Al-Shalchi reported from Wadi Dinar, Libya.