GHAZAIA, Libya, July 31 (Reuters) - Rebels who seized the government-held town of Ghazaia in Libya's Western Mountain in a new offensive describe themselves as "liberators", but there were no cheers when they rolled in.
Its estimated 5,000 residents, supporters of Muammar Gaddafi, had been transported to his stronghold Tripoli by his militiamen, leaving behind a ghost town.
"We would have liked to have been welcomed here. These people all liked Gaddafi. They benefitted from him," said a rebel named Majdi, standing beside rows of houses built by Libyans aided by soft loans from the government.
Libya's six-month uprising is often described as a simple struggle to end decades of autocratic rule. But as the offensive in the Western Mountains illustrates, it is far more complex. Factionalism could fuel a civil war, even if Gaddafi falls, keeping the North African oil producer unstable.
"I just hope that we can oust Gaddafi and that his followers will let the past be the past and embrace democracy," said rebel Omar Ali Muhammad. "Otherwise the country may face troubles even if he is pushed out."
Gaddafi maintained supporters in Ghazaia and other places in the plains below the Western Mountains, despite international pressure on him to step down and defections of senior government officials.
That is one reason why it took rebels, themselves disunited, months to make serious gains here. The veteran Libyan leader's support network could also enable him to launch a counteroffensive and reverse rebel gains.
While his opponents were still gaining military experience, Gaddafi was relying on residents of the rough desert region to give him further advantages over a novice rebel force. One provided his militiamen with extensive services.
"He gave Gaddafi's soldiers everything. Intelligence on our movements, details on the routes we used, he even gave them sheep and goats," said rebel commander Salim al Hamdi, who was discussing strategy with comrades at the man's house, which has been taken over by rebels.
Government forces had been dug in at Ghazaia since the conflict began, setting up headquarters at a complex of houses the government helped people build. Soldiers also lived in villas, enjoying kitchens, television sets and radio.
Now rebels are surrounding the town of Tiji, which also supports Gaddafi. On Sunday afternoon rebels on the frontline fired tank shells and anti-aircraft guns at government forces.
"They like Gaddafi in Tiji," said a rebel named Osama as missiles were fired back, pounding the earth. "After Gaddafi loses we will remember that the people of Tiji loved him. That's why it's tough fighting here. It is a reality."
Another fighter who overheard quickly rushed over to correct him. "No. No everything will be fine. Libya will be stable," he said nervously. (Editing by Jon Hemming)