Libyan soldiers have been looting properties of foreigners in government-held areas around Tripoli, residents in Libya said yesterday.
Rebels battled with government forces in Zawiya this week as the fighting inched closer to Tripoli.
And now, thieves believed to be working for the government are attacking properties fleeing foreigners have left behind, including cars, houses and equipment.
"Some people dressed as military claim to be from the 32nd Reinforced Brigade of the Armed People, also known as the Khamis Brigade," said 42-year-old Rami Zerouali, who saw the looting earlier this week at a residential compound on the Swani Njila Road, 25km from Tripoli.
The Khamis Brigade is a unit of the Libyan military loyal to Col Muammar Qaddafi. "They also pose as military intelligence and they've been stealing anything and everything they can get their hands on," said Mr Zerouali, an engineer in Tripoli, during a telephone interview from Libya.
Among items taken from the compound, where many mechanics live, were bulldozers, generators, graders, tower lights and wheel loaders.
Jim Muir, a 55-year-old British resident of the compound, said he had an investment of more than US$10 million (Dh36m) in Libya. He said his company sold and serviced earth-moving equipment in Libya for 17 years. "My house, my farm and my mechanical workshop have been ransacked by a bunch of government thugs," he said in a telephone interview yesterday.
Mr Muir said almost $3m worth of equipment was stolen in the past week as well as $300,000 worth of cars, including a Mercedes ML550, a Touareg V8, a BMW 750li and some pick-up trucks.
"I am now seriously considering leaving my whole investment in this country as there is just too much hassle and danger for us foreigners," he said.
Mr Muir said he was acquainted with all political sides in Libya, including one of Col Qaddafi's sons. He said he employed many local residents.
Mr Muir speculated that some his employees likely had a hand in the theft but said that many of the looters said they were represented by a man called Harb El Kasseh. "He is the son of Col Hassan El Kasseh, the commander of the security battalion deployed in Tripoli," he said.
The battalions are part of Libya's security and intelligence services and are deployed in many of the country's main cities.
"I told Mr Kasseh on several occasions I was willing to offer my house to several displaced Libyan families," said Mr Muir. "But he rejected every offer as he clearly had different plans in mind."
Witnesses who live in the 20,000 square metre compound also confirmed houses had been looted.
Hakim el Toumi, the 52-year-old Libyan security guard at the compound, said the looters were "definitely being run by Mr Harb".
Many other neighbours also complained about looting.
"To be frank, I know this is mainly happening to foreigners or empty houses," said Tarek Ati, a 36-year-old engineer. "I saw people coming to the door of the compound shooting and asking for it to be opened."
Mr Ati said the thieves had told him they had "come to take everything". "They said they wanted everyone out because they were taking over the compound as it now belonged to the Libyan state," he said.
"I always believed there was law and order in Libya, but after what I experienced, I am really wondering whether it ever existed."