GHARYAN, Libya (Reuters) - Fighters from neighbouring Libyan towns blasted each other with artillery and rockets on Saturday, killing at least two people and wounding 36 in the latest violence between militias who refuse to disarm five months after toppling Muammar Gaddafi.
Interim defence minister Osama al-Juwali rushed to Gharyan, 80 km (50 miles) south of Tripoli to try to halt battles between the militias of that town and neighbouring Assabia.
Libya's interim government is struggling to control disparate armed groups, many of which fought hard in the campaign to topple Gaddafi but are now refusing to hand in their weapons, saying they are suspicious of the country's new rulers.
A few kilometres from the frontline, Gharyan fighters were loading a tank with shells.
Ex-rebels massed in armoured personnel carriers and pickup trucks with mounted anti-aircraft guns. Empty bullet casings lined the road and the sound of rockets being launched and mortars exploding in the distance could be heard.
The commander of the Gharyan military council, Brigadier Ammar Huwaidi, spoke in the presence of Reuters by phone to the defence minister, who appeared to be trying to persuade him to cease fire.
"(Assabia fighters) fired 120 rockets yesterday at us. Today they are using rocket launchers and there is an exchange of fire. Some houses were damaged," Huwaidi told the minister.
"When they shoot, you can't tell me not to shoot back. We are working on calming the situation. But there are people who still control Assabia and they want to spread chaos."
The Gharyan fighters accuse the Assabia fighters of supporting Gaddafi. Fighters from Assabia could not be reached on Saturday for comment.
Since Gaddafi's death, various militias have clashed over land and minor disputes, and often each side accuses the other of still supporting the dead dictator. The defence minister told Reuters such accusations were provocative.
"We don't believe any party's account when it comes to identifying supporters of Gaddafi. Everyone claims that the other is affiliated with Gaddafi, or accuses the other," Juwali told Reuters, shortly after he arrived at the headquarters of Gharyan's city council.
"What happened was clashes between young men from the two cities," he added.
Huwaidi, the Gharyan military commander, told Reuters he had a list of 70 people from former pro-Gaddafi brigades in Assabia whom he wanted arrested. He also wanted handed over the perpetrators of an ambush by Assabia fighters that killed nine people from Gharyan in September.
Spokesman for Gharyan city council Ismail al-Ayeb said that if the government refuses to demand the arrest of the 70 Assabia fighters and the assailants of the September ambush, then Gharyan fighters would enter Assabia territory.
"The fighters from Gharyan are trying to outflank the Assabia fighters," said Ayeb. "There is ongoing fighting. It's not city against city or tribe against tribe. These are revolutionaries against pro-Gaddafi fighters."
He said dozens of Assabia fighters had been captured.
Another member of Gharyan city council told Reuters clashes started when fighters from Assabia stopped two civilians, stripped one naked and stabbed the other in the leg. The incident could not be independently confirmed.
"Revolutionaries in Gharyan started to amass their weapons late on Friday. By 5 p.m., Assabia (fighters) started shooting heavy artillery at Gharyan," the city council member said.
Earlier this month, Libya appointed a head of the armed forces, in the first significant move to build a new military to incorporate the former rebels.
At the same time, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council, warned that conflict among rival militias could spark a civil war after four militants were killed in a clash in Tripoli.
Former rebels want more cash for ousting Gaddafi in the nine-month conflict, and for the government to cut off the salaries of top officials who served under Gaddafi.
Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Andrew Roche