|Youth groups linked to pro-democracy forces have been accused of 'vigilante activities' by Human Rights Watch [GALLO/GETTY]
"Get in the car, don't walk around," came the order. "There are drive-by shootings here." Under the cover of darkness, the Benghazi 'protection squad' gathered. Speaking in muted, tense tones, clutching loaded guns, the men began the hunt.
Across Benghazi city, the capital of the Libyan opposition movement, armed squads are being dispatched to crack down on supporters of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime. In just a few weeks, hundreds have been arrested in the night raids.
In swift, silent convoy they drive across the city, targeting the homes of suspected loyalists. Al Jazeera English's correspondent gained rare access to spend a night with a squad.
The fifteen armed men drove to a farmhouse just outside Benghazi. The choice of target had been discussed back at their base, in an office strewn with handwritten papers; the intelligence on potential suspects.
Pulling up silently, muffling the closing of car doors, fingers on the triggers of the loaded guns, they set up their positions. Two men pointed their weapons, sniper like, through gaps in the outer walls. Faces covered with balaclavas, others snuck through the front gate and surrounded the farm. The only noise to be heard under the clear moonlit sky was the sound of guard dogs' barks.
Drivers waited, the engines running. "This is very, very dangerous. Often there are guns battles," muttered one driver.
The farm was empty. Disappointed, the squad returned to cars. Onto the next target. "They know we are looking for them. They cannot stay in one place. Often they bribe neighbours not to give us information," says the squad leader.
The 'rat hunts', as one commander calls the raids, are for "Ligan Thauria". Gaddafi's infamous 'revolutionary legion', these fanatical supporters of Gaddafi were his eyes and ears in every Libyan city, spying and crushing signs of political opposition.
Traitors in their midst
Some 300 Gaddafi supporters with "blood on their hands" are in Benghazi, says Abdul Ghoga, spokesperson for the rebel Interim National Council (INC). They drive around in cars firing at pedestrians in order to spread fear, say the rebels.
Others believe the figure is far higher. "There are thousands of them here," said the gang leader of the night raid "maybe even 6000."
"We have many people - students, post-graduates, businessmen who still stand with Gaddafi. They are in hiding now, organizing themselves when Gaddafi starts to attack Benghazi," says lifelong Benghazi resident Sami Hassan, 37.
Rebels fear that "pro-Gaddafi" citizens in Benghazi are acting as spies for the regime, seeking to corrode the revolution from the inside.
"Don't trust anyone," this correspondent is repeatedly warned. "We are in a psychological war," admits Council spokesperson Issam Giriani. "Even now, I know some are walking around us here, recording."
Perhaps the accusations are true. There are signs that Benghazi, the heartland of the revolution, has not given itself wholeheartedly to the rebel's cause.
A table at an office in the court house is strewn with the weapons found on infiltrating attackers: Kalashnikov, assault rifles, and dynamite. "There have been five attempts at attacking the court house in the last few weeks," says Ibrahim Gheriani a lawyer and activist in charge of security.
Before being stopped in their tracks by NATO air strikes, Gaddafi's advance on Benghazi emboldened some of his supporters show themselves. "In two days we will win, Muammar will be back," a man told a reporter before slipping quietly back into the crowd.
The incidences prompted the crackdown by the Interim National Council. 'Free Libya' radio announced that Gaddafi sympathizers had 24 hours to hand over their weapons. If they didn't, they would be treated as what they were: murderers and enemies of the revolution.
"Those with bloodstained hands will be punished," says Issam Giriani.
The fog of war
Fed by fear, war breeds suspicion and mistrust. Determining loyalties in this fluid environment can be an impossible task. Some of the targets are suspects on dangerously loose criteria.
The regime loyalty of a person's home town, a photograph of Gaddafi in the wallet (common place during the dictator's rule) and family ties, are all considered 'evidence'.
"This man is from Sirte. Most people from there are Ligen Thauria. His family is from there too," says Hani in explanation of the midnight armed raid on the farm house.
"Some people turned themselves in and volunteer information; they come and tell us about their friends who are pro-Gaddafi," said a member of the squad.
The rebels have their own spying game. "Sometimes we use women; they go inside to the houses, perhaps pretending they are poor and need something. There they see if the person has guns, she tries to find them."
Captives are taken to a military base where political prisoners were kept during Gaddafi's rule. In the closed cement quadrangle courtyard lined by cells sit rows of captives. On the right are the foreign prisoners, thought by the rebels to be 'mercenaries hired by Gaddafi to fight against them. Lined on the left were dozens of black Libyans. They sat huddled but not handcuffed in the sunlight.
The captives are treated well, but their imprisonment is indefinite. "God knows when I will be allowed to go home," says a black Libyan who says he was captured at a bus stop as he tried to get home.
Many of the 'protection squads' are not sanctioned by the Transitional National Council (TNC). They are civilians who have decided to take the law into their own hands.
"We have just been discussing last night that we want to go through the real legal process to capturing these people. We want to be organised," says Mareh Bejou, commander of the largest rebel training camp in Benghazi.
Often the raids are run by adrenaline-pumped youth. Before going out, in the secret base where they gathered, the squad of youths joked, jumped, shouted; pumped with for the night's hunt. "Most of these guys have been my friends since school," said the squad leader. "Let's go!" he said to the enthusiastic clacks of his gang loading their weapons.
Excited and power hungry the commander wielded his loaded Kalashnikov dangerously with a manic smile. His military training was cut short when he was kicked out from the college. "I had a fight with the colonel in college. He swore at me, kicked me out."
The raids can be violent. Three of this gang has been killed. "On the first raid, we went to find Gaddafi people who were trading guns said Hani. There was a forty minute gun battle in which the squad lost one of its men. "We captured four guys and I killed one," he said proudly.
Human Rights Watch is concerned by the raids. "It must be a priority for the transitional council to stop such vigilante activities, and to confiscate weapons in the hands of uncontrolled elements," said emergencies director Peter Bouckaert.
"It is also disconcerting that the authorities do indirectly cooperate with these vigilante shabab groups by taking custody of the people they've detained, and not even investigating the abuses committed against those detainees."
More than months after the Libyan uprising began, the night raids are growing in number and size. "We caught 25 last week," said a squad organizer who works at the Benghazi rebel's court house.
As the revolution transforms into a political opposition movement, the raids leave an increasingly bad taste to the INC commitment to democratic values. The raids are for security in times of war, say the rebels, but they also smack of political repression.
The term "enemies of the revolution" is familiar. Gadhafi used those words himself during his own revolution. "The script has flipped, says Mustafa Giriani, media coordinator for the National Council, "before it was the anti-Gaddafi movement that was in hiding".