Former rebels, weapons drawn, burst into the houses of suspected supporters of Moammar Gadhafi, searching rooms and hauling away military uniforms, a portable safe and documents that appear to link residents to the deposed regime.
The search party leader, a mosque preacher-turned-military chief, insisted only those who fought for Gadhafi - and not his political backers - will be interrogated and possibly punished.
But the raids Tuesday raised concerns about vigilante justice among the former rebels who have taken control of most of Libya during a six-month civil war that brought down the Gadhafi regime.
All those targeted denied links to Gadhafi’s army.
Abdel-Basit Abu Mzirig, an aide to the interim justice ministry, acknowledged that neighborhood councils often carry out raids and arrests on their own, without authorization from a central authority. However, he insisted there’s been little abuse, arguing most former rebels are educated civilians “and know how to handle people.”
But Moammar Mahmoud, 33, was livid after his house in Tripoli's southeastern Khalet el-Furjani neighborhood was searched Tuesday, saying he felt his rights had been violated. “I am very angry,” the former tax inspector said after the raid only turned up a green Gadhafi flag. “Who wouldn’t be if people come to your house and search it?”
The former rebels rely on Western support and have come under scrutiny for possible human rights violations since taking control of the capital late last month. They have been criticized for widespread arrests of dark-skinned men, including Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans, on suspicion - often based on little evidence - that they served as Gadhafi mercenaries.
Leaders of the former rebels have said they seek reconciliation with most Gadhafi supporters, eager to avoid the mistakes made in post-war Iraq, where a purge prompted former regime loyalists to take up arms and helped destabilize the country for years.
In Khalet el-Furjani, a neighborhood of about 4,000 people, the undisputed boss is now Hussein Furjani, who temporarily traded his white preacher’s robe for military fatigues after rebel fighters rolled into Tripoli on Aug. 21.
Furjani heads the local military committee and operates from his mosque. On Tuesday, he gave orders from an office chair in the mosque courtyard, sporting dark shades and a turban, while cradling a Belgian assault rifle and a walkie-talkie.
The courtyard was crammed with goods he said his men have seized from residents in the past two weeks, including several dozen white Harley-Davidson police motorcycles, living room sets, mattresses, hot water boilers and duffel bags.
Furjani’s men run a checkpoint on the main road outside the mosque. Furjani said much of the booty in his courtyard was recovered during car searches, though on Tuesday, no cars were being stopped.
Other items were taken from people’s homes, with his men acting on tips from neighbors about where looted goods might be found. Government compounds were targeted by looters, along with the abandoned homes of former Gadhafi supporters who fled Tripoli, he said, adding that he would try to restore the property to its rightful owners once they return.
In the past two weeks, Furjani and his men have searched roughly 30 houses, looking for Gadhafi supporters, their weapons and looted goods, he said.
On Tuesday, he led half a dozen former rebels in two pickup trucks into an alley in the neighborhood, where they searched three houses, weapons drawn.
In the first, they found two cars in the yard. Mohannad Addali, 25, son of the owner, said the cars had been left there by a senior pro-Gadhafi official.
Furjani said the cars would be taken as part of the investigation.
His men also hauled a safe with a government sticker from a storage room, as well as two huge bags of dog food. “We have dogs!” Addali protested.
A pair of handcuffs, a spent explosives shell, a Kalashnikov and ammunition were also seized. Addali said he bought the rifle, denying it was issued to the family by the regime.
However, Furjani’s suspicions were not laid to rest and he told Addali he would have to report to Tripoli’s central military council for questioning. Furjani said his job was to seize loot and rifles, not to question suspects.
“I will go tomorrow. I have no problem with that,” Addali, an oil worker, told a reporter, heatedly denying he or his relatives had been Gadhafi supporters.
The search of the next house, belonging to the tax inspector, yielded only the green flag.
In the third house, which belonged to a family originally from Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown, the search team found several piles of military uniforms, a Kalashnikov and a briefcase with documents, including photocopies of ID cards that suggested some in the family had fought for Gadhafi.
Furjani crouched and sorted through the papers, returning personal documents to a member of the family, Abdel Wahab Mohammed, while handing possibly incriminating ones to his aide, Mohammed Shiriana.
Mohammed insisted he was a civilian, but Shiriana, a construction engineer and aide to Furjani, said the documents indicate the man was a member of a Gadhafi brigade. Furjani said the man would also have to report for questioning.
While barking orders during the searches, Furjani and his men also seemed to go out of their way to avoid confrontations with residents. “We are very, very sorry that we entered the house,” Furjani told Addali at one point.
However, when Addali asked if he could have the promised sticker for his front door that would protect him from further searches, Furjani said that would have to wait until the two cars were towed.
Curious neighbors mingled in the alley with former rebels and suspected Gadhafi supporters. Whispering to Furjani, one neighbor urged him to look at one of the houses in the alley.
Furjani insisted the former rebels would not violate people's rights, as the Gadhafi regime did, including in the regime’s final days in Tripoli when retreating loyalists executed dozens of detainees.
“In the new government, we will be more polite, and we will be forgiving,” Furjani said, adding that he would return to preaching once law and order had been restored.
“Maybe these people here, after a few days, will sit together. They will be like brothers.”
Associated Press Writer Ben Hubbard in Tripoli contributed to this report.