This page is no longer being updated. To see the latest news on Libya
>>> CLICK HERE <<<
March 6, 2011
Rebels in eastern Libya have been locked in a struggle with government forces for the town of Bin Jawad, just 100 miles from the key city of Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi’s home town. The fighting occurred in the midst of what appeared to be a concerted counterattack by Gaddafi’s forces. Despite claims of a string of decisive victories by the government, which brought gun-firing supporters on to the streets of Tripoli, its gains appeared largely illusory. Among cities it claimed to have recaptured were Zawiyah, Misrata, Ras Lanuf and Tobruk, all of which are held or partly held by opposition forces. In Zawiyah, a television crew, who had been inside the town for several days during two large-scale assaults, saw rebels manage to capture or destroy eight government tanks. At one stage, tanks had reached the centre of the town, but were driven back by fierce resistance. Sky TV reported that tanks were firing directly into buildings. Among the dead and injured were civilians who Sky reporters saw at the hospital.
In Misrata, rebels resisted a fierce attack by pro-Gaddafi forces, and a doctor told Reuters at least 18 had been killed. Government forces used tanks and artillery in what appeared to be their most concerted effort yet to retake the town 125 miles east of Tripoli, but were pushed back. “Today Misrata witnessed the toughest battle since the beginning of the revolution. Horrible attacks,” one resident, who did not want to give his name, said by phone. “They came from three sides and managed to enter the town from the west and south but when they reached the centre of Misrata the rebels pushed them back,” he said. Another Misrata resident said Gaddafi’s forces had retreated to an air base five miles from the town. Another major flashpoint was Bin Jawad, on the road to Sirte, one of the major objectives of the government forces. The anticipated battle for Sirte is likely to dictate the outcome of the conflict. Rebels captured Bin Jawad on Saturday, but were ejected from the town on Sunday before regrouping to attack it again later in the day. Helicopter gunships are reported to have fired on the rebel force that is advancing west.
The opposition force pushed out of its stronghold in the eastern half of Libya late last week for the first time and has been cutting a path west towards Tripoli. “We are just outside Bin Jawad,” Reuters correspondent Mohammed Abbas reported. “There are thuds of mortars landing near rebel positions, leaving puffs of smoke, and also the sound of heavy machine guns in the distance. There’s a steady stream of rebels heading back west towards Bin Jawad.” One wounded fighter, returning from Bin Jawad to rebel-held Ras Lanuf further east, said Gaddafi loyalists had ambushed advancing rebels with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Asked what he had seen, he replied: “Death.” “It’s real fierce fighting, like Vietnam,” said another rebel fighter, Ali Othman. “Every kind of weapon is being used. We’ve retreated from an ambush and we are going to regroup.” “Gaddafi’s forces attacked with aircraft and shot from on top of the houses,” said Ibrahim Boudabbous, who took part in the rebel advance. Doctors and other staff at Ras Lanuf hospital said two dead and 22 injured had arrived from fighting in Bin Jawad. “They’re all rebels here,” a witness in Ras Lanuf said. A warplane struck Ras Lanuf on Sunday but no one was hurt.
March 6, 2011
TRIPOLI, Libya — Government forces in tanks rolled into the opposition-held city closest to Tripoli after blasting it with artillery and mortar fire, while rebels captured a key oil port and pushed toward Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown in a seesaw Saturday for both sides in the bloody battle for control of Libya. With the Gadhafi regime’s tanks prowling the center of the city of Zawiya, west of Tripoli, residents ferried the wounded from the fierce fighting in private cars to a makeshift clinic in a mosque, fearing that any injured taken to the military-controlled hospital “will be killed for sure,” one rebel said after nightfall.
The rival successes – by Gadhafi’s forces in entering resistant Zawiya, and by the rebels in taking over the port of Ras Lanouf – signaled an increasingly long and violent battle that could last weeks or months and veered the country ever closer to civil war. Rebels in the east advanced from their eastern stronghold toward Sirte, setting the stage for fierce fighting with pro-Gadhafi forces who hold sway in the tribal area. Western leaders focused on humanitarian aid instead of military intervention, and the Italian naval vessel Libra left from Catania, Sicily, for the rebel-held port of Benghazi in eastern Libya, with 25 tons of emergency aid, including milk, rice, blankets, emergency generators, water purifying devices and tents. It is due to arrive early Monday.
The crisis in Libya has distinguished itself from the other uprisings sweeping the Arab world, with Gadhafi unleashing a violent crackdown against his political opponents, who themselves have taken up arms in their attempt to remove him from office after ruling the country for more than 41 years. Hundreds have been killed. Gadhafi has drawn international condemnation for his actions. President Barack Obama has insisted that Gadhafi must leave and said Washington was considering a full range of options, including the imposition of a “no-fly” zone over Libya. The storming of Zawiya, a city of some 200,000 people just 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, began with a surprise dawn attack by pro-Gadhafi forces firing mortar shells and machine guns.
“The number of people killed is so big. The number of the wounded is so big. The number of tanks that entered the city is big,” the rebel in Zawiya said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared government reprisal. The rebels vowed to keep up the fight in the city. Witnesses who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone with gunfire and explosions in the background said the shelling damaged government buildings and homes. Several fires sent heavy black smoke over the city, and witnesses said snipers shot at anybody on the streets, including residents on balconies. The rebels initially retreated to positions deeper in the city before they launched a counteroffensive in which they regained some ground, according to three residents and activists who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
By midafternoon, the rebels had reoccupied central Martyrs’ Square while the pro-regime forces regrouped on the city’s fringes, sealing off the city’s entry and exit routes, the witnesses said. Members of the elite Khamis Brigade, named for one of Gadhafi’s sons who commands it, have been massed outside the city for days. The pro-Gadhafi forces then blasted Zawiya with artillery and mortar fire in late afternoon before the tanks and troops on foot came in, firing at buildings and people, witnesses said. Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Qaid said “99 percent” of Zawiya is under government control. “The situation in Zawiya is quiet and peaceful right now,” he said Saturday at a news conference. “We hope by tomorrow morning, life will be back to normal.” The rebels fared better in the east, capturing the key oil port of Ras Lanouf on Friday night in their first military victory in a potentially long and arduous westward march from the east of the country to Gadhafi’s eastern stronghold of Tripoli.
Witnesses said Ras Lanouf, about 90 miles (140 kilometers) east of Sirte, fell to rebel hands on Friday night after a fierce battle with pro-regime forces who later fled. “Go to Tripoli!” one of the fighters yelled in English. Another brandished a bayonet, pointed to its blade and said: “I need head Gadhafi! Head Gadhafi I need!” An Associated Press reporter who arrived in Ras Lanouf Saturday morning saw Libya’s red, black and green pre-Gadhafi monarchy flag, which has been adopted by the rebels, hoisted over the town’s oil facilities. One of the rebels, Ahmed al-Zawi, said the battle was won after Ras Lanouf residents joined the rebels. Al-Zawi, who participated in the fighting, said 12 rebels were killed in the fighting, in which rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns were used. Officials at a hospital in the nearby city of Ajdabiya, however, said only five rebels were killed and 31 wounded in the attack. The discrepancy in the figures could not immediately be explained.
“They just follow orders. After a little bit of fighting, they run away,” said another rebel at Ras Lanouf, Borawi Saleh, an 11-year veteran of the army who is now an oil company employee. A witness in Ajdabiya said rebels had begun their push toward Sirte, reaching the town of Nawfaliyah, 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Ras Lanouf. The witness said he was going to join them and expected fierce fighting with pro-Gadhafi forces. Also Saturday, witnesses said a Libyan jet fighter crashed near Ras Lanouf. They displaying pictures showing the pilot’s body and twisted wreckage from the plane. The cause of Saturday’s crash couldn’t immediately be determined. Pro-Gadhafi forces have launched a number of airstrikes against rebel targets as they seek to put down the 19-day-old rebellion.
In Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, funerals were held for some of the 26 people killed in an explosion Friday at a large arms and ammunition depot outside town. The massive blast leveled flattened buildings, cars and trees in an area three times the size of a soccer field. It also deprived the rebels of arms and ammunition. It was not immediately clear how the depot blew up, but suspicion immediately fell on Gadhafi agents. Hundreds lined the streets to pay their respects to the dead before starting chants against Gadhafi.
March 6, 2011
Eyewitnesses and rebels say four towns which Libyan forces loyal to Colonel Gaddafi claim to have retaken remain under rebel control. BBC correspondents say that Tobruk and Ras Lanuf remain in rebel hands. Anti-Gaddafi forces still control Misrata and Zawiya, residents and rebels said. But both Misrata and Ras Lanuf came under renewed attack on Sunday, and clashes have been reported in the small town of Bin Jawad. In the capital, Tripoli, officials said pre-dawn gunfire there was celebrating pro-Gaddafi “gains” of the towns. The BBC’s Wyre Davies in Tripoli says many people there first thought the firing was clashes between pro- and anti-government forces. Ras Lanuf – 160km (100 miles) east of Sirte – was taken by opposition forces on Saturday.
The BBC’s Nick Springate went into Ras Lanuf on Sunday and confirmed that it was still held by the opposition and that there are no pro-Gaddafi forces nearby.However the major oil town has seen overflights by planes loyal to the government, and rebel fighters are trying to target them, says our correspondent. About 50km north-west of Ras Lanuf, clashes were reported in Bin Jawad. Rebels said their forces withdrew after coming under attack when they advanced. Doctors told the French news agency AFP that two people had been killed and about 40 were wounded in the fighting. A local doctor in Misrata, 200km east of Tripoli, told the BBC that the situation had become “very bad” after pro-Gaddafi forces with tanks and armoured cars went into the city centre and opened fire.
He said they shot at people whether they were armed or not, and that three people had been killed. Earlier, machinegun and heavy weapons fire could be heard across the capital Tripoli, starting at about 0545 (0345 GMT). Government spokesman Musa Ibrahim said the gunfire was celebratory because the “government forces have in the last 12 hours crushed rebel groups in Ras Lanuf, Zawiya and Misrata.” He said there was no fighting going on in Tripoli. Tripoli has been Col Gaddafi’s main stronghold as he attempts to reassert control over the country from rebels who have taken much of the east of the country as well as some towns closer to Tripoli, in the west. On Saturday, residents of Zawiya, 50km west of Tripoli, said Col Gaddafi’s troops had fired indiscriminately on civilians as they attempted to capture the town. In their eastern stronghold of Benghazi, rebels formed a 30-member National Libyan Council which claims to now be the country’s sole representative.
The UN estimates that more than 1,000 people have died in the unrest in Libya, which follows public protests in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt that saw their presidents overthrown. The UN Security Council approved sanctions last week imposing asset freezes and travel bans on Col Gaddafi and his family and aides. The resolution also referred Col Gaddafi and his inner circle to the International Criminal Court for investigation of crimes against humanity. But in an interview with a French newspaper published on Sunday, Col Gaddafi said he would welcome a United Nations or African Union investigation into the violence in the country. In a separate development, the UK Ministry of Defence has declined to comment on a report in a Sunday newspaper that eight members of the SAS have been seized by rebel forces in Libya. The Sunday Times claims the plain clothes, armed men were trying to put UK diplomats in touch with rebels trying to topple the Gaddafi regime.
March 6, 2011
BENGHAZI, LIBYA – Government forces carried out a bloody siege of Zawiyah on Saturday, bombarding the rebel-held western city with mortar fire and deploying tanks in the streets and snipers on rooftops. But even as they pressed their counterattack against a resistance that vowed to fight on, emboldened opposition forces in the east backed away from calls for international airstrikes and pledged to take the battle against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to his stronghold in the capital, Tripoli, on their own. Libyan government warplanes were also reportedly launching airstrikes and engaging with rebels in heavy ground clashes along the Mediterranean coast east of the capital, where rebels were marching toward Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte for what could be a pivotal battle.
Just before 6 a.m. on Sunday, sustained rounds of gunfire erupted in Tripoli, along with the sound of heavy artillery, though government officials in the capital denied fighting had broken out and reports said Gaddafi loyalists were rallying in parts of the city. The day’s events suggested the bid to oust Gaddafi was developing into precisely what Western observers have feared: a potentially protracted civil war. The violence in Zawiyah, a city vital to Libya’s oil industry and where witnesses said dozens had been killed and hundreds wounded Saturday, offered a chilling glimpse into what could become an inconclusive and bruising conflict with an ever-mounting death toll. By late Saturday, the government and the opposition claimed control of Zawiyah. Though accounts were impossible to verify, witnesses described a “massacre” in the worst of a two-day siege in which shells rained on neighborhoods and bullet-ridden bodies of fighters were strewn in the streets of the city, 27 miles west of Tripoli.
Yet the ferocity of the campaign in Zawiyah illustrated the challenge ahead for government forces as they seek to decisively win back territory lost since the uprising against Gaddafi began Feb. 17. After striking the city Friday, Gaddafi loyalists reportedly led by his son Khamis Gaddafi escalated their attack Saturday. At 7 a.m. local time, tanks rolled into the city accompanied by heavy shelling and machine-gun assaults, with witnesses reporting great plumes of black smoke billowing from various neighborhoods. Yet within three hours, the rebels succeeded, witnesses said, in driving Gaddafi’s forces out of the city’s center after blowing up two tanks with hand-held rocket-propelled grenades. Loyalist snipers took positions on rooftops, firing on the central square before pulling back to the city’s perimeter. The shelling of the city, however, continued. Witnesses said houses and buildings were severely damaged.
Rebels claimed to be inflicting heavy damage on their better-armed opponents, saying dozens of Gaddafi’s fighters had been killed. Still others were captured, they said, and were being held as prisoners of war. “It is a massacre. They are striking civilians, they are attacking us from all directions,” Mohammed Ahmad, a 31-year-old doctor, said by phone during one of the attacks. Explosions and whizzing bullets could be heard around him as he spoke. “People are running around shouting, ‘God is great!’ You can hear the shooting everywhere. This is madness. Why is the international community not interfering?”
March 6, 2011
Amid the cacophony of the battle below, the low, sinister hum of the fighter jet’s engines was scarcely audible at first. Then, as it grew louder, a ripple of tension spread across the disorderly ranks of rebels positioned haphazardly along Brega beach and its nearby sand dunes. The rat-a-tat-tat of their rifles fell silent as the aircraft emerged from the glare of the sun and looped back in the direction of the rebel lines. Minutes earlier, a group of youngsters in ill-fitting camouflage fatigues had been preparing for just such a moment, firing bursts of anti-aircraft fire into the sea. Now, their bravado gone, they scattered, diving for cover in headlong panic. Untroubled by the guns below, the MiG dropped its payload and two deafening explosions shook the earth nearby, sending a cloud of smoke and sand whirling into the sky.
More than anything else, it is Col Muammar Gaddafi’s air force that has spread consternation across rebel-held eastern Libya. In cities such as Benghazi, and other towns across the east where the uprising against him first erupted 18 days ago, there is an almost universal sense of expectation that their leader of 41 years will visit retribution on his rebellious subjects from the air. Across the east, civilian volunteers have armed themselves with anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades and even the odd surface-to-air missile launcher. Yet, so far at least, Col Gaddafi’s air force – depleted by a spate of defections and plagued by low morale – has inflicted little real damage, despite launching several air strikes on front line towns under rebel control. Instead, the Libyan leader has chosen to lead his counter-offensive in the east with ground troops, trusting in their vastly superior firepower to quell a rebellion that has been led and largely fought by civilians. The uprising ostensibly has 6,000 trained soldiers from defecting battalions to call on, but much of the rebellion is being fought by welders and engineers, shopkeepers and waiters, a dishevelled army of volunteers commanded by a handful of military officers who have agreed to join the fight.
In minivans, battered saloon cars and the occasional pickup truck mounted with an anti-aircraft gun, this motley band charges out of Benghazi every time the call to battle is sounded. Many screech to a halt on the outskirts of Ajdabiya, a town 100 miles south of Benghazi on the coast road to Tripoli. A seething mass of people, many wasting their ammunition by firing it frenziedly into the air, gathered on the desert approach to the town last week, among them Osama Hamad al-Hasi, who has been confined to a wheelchair since losing both legs in an accident 10 years ago. “I’ve lost my legs, what more can I lose,” he said. “Your life, perhaps,” a friend joked, before placing a bolt-action rifle across the stumps protruding from his torso. Others seem to have no weapons at all, arming themselves instead with whatever they could find in their homes. One had a machete, a second a barbecue skewer. “There aren’t enough guns to go around,” explained Ali Muftah Mughrabi, a purveyor of women’s clothes in civilian life, who had come to defend Ajdabiya with a hammer. “We fight with whatever we have or we die.” There was little evidence of co-ordination on the front line either, where men charged forward, firing wildly, heedless of the pleaded orders shouted by hapless commanders.
Yet the disorder seemed to reap dividends in Brega, as the rebels first pushed Col Gaddafi’s men out of its airport and oilfield, forcing them to retreat to the town’s university. They may have been frightened of air strikes, but these men fighting in Brega’s sand dunes showed little fear in the face of an onslaught of artillery. They returned fire with their rifles, some lying in the sand, others darting forward at a crouch, shooting in bursts before taking cover once more. “I’ve not had any training,” said one fighter. “But I’ve seen plenty of action films.” Back in Benghazi, efforts were being made to formulate a strategy to lead the rebellion to victory and complete the overthrow of Col Gaddafi. The revolution’s own officials are frank about their lack of organisation. “It is chaos here,” admitted Imam Bugrighis, a spokesman based in Benghazi. “Nobody is in charge of anything, and everybody is in charge of everything.” She moved across her office in Benghazi’s seafront court building to shut the window as bursts of gunfire drowned out her words. The court building has become the headquarters of the revolution, with a former interrogation centre next door converted into a newspaper office and radio station. Several of the journalists were once tortured there.
Three weeks ago Mrs Bugrighis was working as a dentist – she was employed by the National Health Service in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for four years – but like many other Libyans she has stepped bravely forward to commit herself to the revolt against Col Gaddafi. Despite the chaos on the streets, Col Gaddafi’s opponents in Benghazi are slowly becoming more organised. Young men from Benghazi and the other towns along the east coast are undergoing day-long weapons-training courses. Adel Mustapha, a pot-bellied 45-year-old supermarket manager who learnt English at a summer school in Bournemouth 20 years ago, was one of those who turned up to man an anti-aircraft gun. “It is dangerous, but I am willing to fight to make a better life for my children,” he said. Gen Abdul Fattah Younis, a former security chief of Col Gaddafi’s, and once a close friend, has played a crucial role in the revolt in the east, ordering special forces units that he commanded to switch sides. But because of his past – he was one of the officers who launched the 1969 coup that brought Col Gaddafi to power – he is distrusted by many revolutionaries, and he does not yet have a formal position. Interviewing the general remains tricky because he sleeps in a different house every night to foil Col Gaddafi’s assassins, who killed one of his bodyguards in an attack 10 days ago.
The Sunday Telegraph was taken on a high-speed car ride through the streets of Benghazi to meet the general in the elegant villa of a supporter who was hosting him for the night. “Gaddafi is not a man who will step down from power easily,” he warned. “He would do anything if it helped him to stay in power and I wouldn’t put it beyond him to use chemical weapons. If he gave a Libyan officer the order to use such weapons, the choice would simply be to obey, or to be executed.” Exactly how many men are committed to the fight on either side is hard to say, but right now neither seems strong enough to land a decisive blow on the other, raising the prospect of what may become a protracted civil war. Gen Younis, like most supporters of the new revolution, was firmly against intervention by foreign armies. But he believed that the West should be ready to launch air strikes on Col Gaddafi’s palace in Tripoli, and was also in favour of establishing an international no-fly zone. As of yet the anti-Gaddafi opposition still has no clear figurehead, and only a vague idea of the new Libya, although its ranks do seem to be overwhelmingly secular and in favour of democracy. There is no charismatic individual in place to rally supporters, or to make demands on the outside world. Their apparent success so far against what appears to be a much better equipped enemy defies easy explanation. There are signs that a minority who have joined their ranks are Islamists, whose style of prayer and the jihadi tapes they listen to suggest – according to some witnesses – that they have spent time in Afghanistan. Many also know they have no choice but to fight because of what defeat might mean. Facing student protests in Benghazi in the 1980s, Col Gaddafi responded by publicly hanging the ringleaders. His wrath at a full-blown revolt, many believe, can only be much bloodier.
March 5, 2011
At the beating heart of the uprising, in Benghazi, Libya’s rebels are trying to kickstart a revolution that has stalled less than halfway to the capital. Throughout the sacked city that spawned the revolt, the euphoria of victory is steadily becoming a distant memory. Routine has set into a place that two weeks ago was flush with hope and opportunity. After ousting a dictator of 42 years in less than a weekend, anything seemed possible here. For a while. Shops are now open, streets are teeming and people are again talking about the grind of daily life. Heady predictions of a glorious march to Tripoli have been silenced. “We didn’t ask to be in this position,” said Salwa Bugaigis, a leading member of Benghazi’s organising committee, now trying to run the town’s civil affairs. “I’ve said that since the beginning. I was one of the first protesters outside the courthouse. Then they attacked us. And then the revolution came. We are running something that we were not prepared for.”
Benghazi’s rebels were clearly not prepared for another surprise – Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s ability to rally his supporters and mount an effective rear-guard action that has stopped the revolution in its tracks, at least for now. They had witnessed the speed with which his power base crumbled in the east. They had seen loyalists of more than four decades flee within hours, leaving behind their spoils of power and patronage. They could have been forgiven for thinking that the rest was going to be easy. But the 1,000km road running flat from Benghazi to Tripoli reveals stark realities. Pro-regime figures have used the coastal city of Sirte, roughly halfway between the two cities, to regroup and plot how they can square their ledger with the rebels. Sirte is to Gaddafi what Tikrit was to Saddam Hussein, an almost impenetrable power base, whose well-to-do residents owe their comfortable lives to their patron. Gaddafi’s family tribe is stronger in Sirte than perhaps anywhere else in Libya. As such, Sirte’s inhabitants stand to lose almost as much as their most famous son if the west of Libya goes the way of the east.
Along the highway to Sirte, charred ruins from the two battles fought last week for the strategically vital oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf could clearly be seen. Burned 4x4s littered parts of the highway, and several large craters were testament to the fighting. Gaddafi’s forces left both towns after occupying them for several days and engaging rebels who moved south to take them back. But few of Gaddafi’s enemies doubt theirs has been a total victory. At the gates of an industrial area in Benghazi, one fighter warned that the pro-government forces would soon be back. “This is them testing us,” he said. “We have to be wise. This will get much worse, very soon. They didn’t run away because they were defeated. They had learned enough about us and they left.” A week is a long time in Libya’s revolution. Seven days ago the narrative was of a rebel advance almost to Colonel Gaddafi’s doorstep. The town of Zawiyah — reached by journalists last Sunday – was in the hands of the opposition, which had little more than two ancient tanks, a handful of armoured cars and a pair of anti-aircraft guns.
In reality, the story of “the advance” was always something of an illusion, more real on paper than on the ground. True, the opposition holds much of the east, but the towns that have been ticked off one by one in the country’s west and around the capital have been a very different issue — Zawiyah foremost among them. For these are places that have not so much been captured by an opposition motoring on Tripoli but have fallen to the part of the population opposing Gaddafi. And while they have been presented as part of a joined-up whole, in the west these opposition centres have been largely isolated from events in the east, unable to be reinforced or resupplied from the main effort in and around Benghazi. Closer to Gaddafi’s centre of power – and with support less unanimous – the opposition’s grip in these places has sometimes seemed tenuous at best. Passing through Zawiyah in the middle of last week, it was clear a new balance of power was emerging. While last Sunday the checkpoints leading towards the city had been armoured cars and pickups, by Wednesday modern tanks, a dozen belonging to the Khamis brigade commanded by Gaddafi’s son of the same name, were sitting at junctions outside the town.
Ten kilometres or so behind them was another worrying development for the 200 or so fighters within Zawiyah. First six, then eight, BM-21 missile launchers appeared in a tree-fringed meadow, their rockets pointing towards the town. When the battle did come in earnest, it appears that those in the town were caught by surprise. For instead of attacking along the main road from the roundabout, close to the town’s Martyrs Square, the government forces came from the west, through the outlying area of Harsha, catching the rebels by surprise and killing their commander early on in the fighting. A teacher in the town said that Zawiyah was now under siege from pro-Gaddafi forces. “The square is surrounded. There is smoke and many fires. They are firing at the houses around the square. Snipers are firing at anyone who moves. My friends and cousins are in the square fighting. There are explosions. Anyone who tries to go to the square is being killed.” Libyan rebels said yesterday afternoon that they had repelled the initial attack by Gaddafi’s forces. “They entered Zawiyah at six in the morning with heavy forces, hundreds of soldiers with tanks. Our people fought back … We have won for now and civilians are gathering in the square,” said Youssef Shagan, the rebel force spokesman in Zawiyah.
However, another rebel fighter said that Gaddafi’s forces were regrouping at the town’s entrance. “Gaddafi will never enter this city,” said the rebel, who gave his name as Ibrahim. “He will never set foot here. The only way for him to enter the city is when we are all dead. He has to kill us all to control the city.” Earlier, the Libyan leader’s forces had fired high-explosive rounds in central streets and dragged people from their homes. There were reports of many casualties among civilians, rebels and soldiers. The fluctuating fortunes of the two sides, typified in the bloody fights for Zawiyah and the sharp, chaotic battles for towns such as Misrata and Brega, suggest Libya’s conflict may endure for weeks, or even months, as neither side is able to muster enough military power to decisively defeat the other. The opposition, despite its early, bullish pronouncements about marching on Tripoli, lacks any effective air cover, leaving it vulnerable to those in the Libyan air force still loyal to Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s difficulties are no less intense. Opponents, mobilising in the capital, were prevented from demonstrating on Friday by the deployment of dozens of tanks and security cars filled with armed men. It may have been a massive show of strength but it also revealed Gaddafi’s inherent weakness. Any weakening of the ring of steel he has placed around the capital threatens to leave him vulnerable. Amid the bloody impasse, diplomats shuttle behind the scenes, but with little outward success. A group of mostly Latin American states, mobilised by the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, a Gaddafi ally, are pushing for an international mediating mission to Libya. But this looks unlikely now the rebels have ruled out talks unless they lead to Gaddafi’s resignation or exile, outcomes he has refused to acknowledge.
Western leaders, meanwhile, look increasingly moribund. Having unsuccessfully urged Gaddafi to go, they are left considering various options, including the imposition of a no-fly zone, but are wary about involving more troops, given the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The upheaval has caused a humanitarian emergency on the Tunisian border, where tens of thousands of foreign workers have fled. An international airlift is under way, reducing the number of refugees stranded in tented camps. A detachment of British troops has been placed on stand-by to go to Libya for humanitarian and evacuation purposes. The Ministry of Defence said the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, has been ready to deploy at 24 hours’ notice for the past 10 days. A spokeswoman said that the 200 troops would provide only humanitarian assistance and would not engage in any combat or intervene militarily. Meanwhile, the fortunes of the opposing forces fluctuated as battles raged elsewhere in Libya. After a day of fierce fighting, the oil port of Ras Lanuf was taken by the rebels yesterday. But veterans who know Gaddafi and his tactics are cautious. “He is trying to trick us,” said Colonel Ahmed Belkhair, the commander of rebel forces in Benghazi. “We cannot charge along blindly, especially with his air force controlling the skies. If we do that and we get beaten back, we lose everything.” On Friday, Gaddafi’s forces are believed to have blown up an arms store on the eastern edge of the town where the uprising began just under a month ago. Journalists who arrived at the site of the explosion saw entire buildings, cars and trees flattened and smouldering as a result of the blast.
It was not immediately clear how the depot blew up, but suspicion immediately fell on Gaddafi’s agents seeking to deny the rebels the arms and ammunition they need to continue their fight westwards toward Sirte. As the fighting intensified, Benghazi’s new leaders predicted that their allies in the capital will join them soon. “Gaddafi made sure no one had anything functioning but his own people,” said Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the civilian council in Benghazi. “But the people in Tripoli will break the chains soon. The people there will rise up.” Yesterday much of what was on show in Benghazi still spoke of revolution and victory. Stirring hymns, recorded in the wake of the fall of the city, blared out on constant rotation. Independence flags that were last flown in the city 42 years ago are flying again, and local children shout their defiance as they run traffic intersections that not long ago were the sole domain of Gaddafi loyalists. But noticeably absent was the gung-ho talk evident further along the highway where the fighting has been at its most intense. Instead people were focusing on more mundane things, like establishing a functional society and finding food. They anticipate being in for the long haul. Locals were pragmatic, not revolutionary. “We have a lot to do here,” said Fatima Marouf, as she bought meat, the first time she had left her house in a fortnight. “If we get this city working, then the rest may happen itself.”
March 5, 2011
A cargo ship carrying £100m worth of Libyan currency destined for Colonel Gaddafi’s regime was escorted into a British port and the money seized after officials warned the vessel’s owners that the cash was the subject of United Nations sanctions. The Sloman Provider, which had abandoned its journey to the Libyan capital Tripoli because of the ongoing violence, was accompanied into the Essex port of Harwich on Wednesday by a UK Border Agency vessel, and containers holding the bank notes were taken under guard to a secure location. Sloman Neptun, the German shipping company which owns the cargo vessel, said yesterday that it had already decided to return to Britain, where the currency had been printed by a contractor, before it was contacted by the British authorities and asked to return with the consignment. With its huge revenue from oil and gas exports reduced to a trickle by the rebellion, Gaddafi’s regime is increasingly desperate for new currency to meet its costs. British officials last week conducted a delaying operation to thwart attempts by allies of the dictator to get hold of £900m of Libyan dinars, which had been produced by specialist currency printing company De La Rue at its plant in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.
It is understood that the £100m shipment had already left the UK before a control order banning the export of any Libyan currency came into force on Sunday. A Home Office spokesman said: “A vessel which had been heading to Libya returned to the UK on Wednesday morning. A number of containers were offloaded from the boat and have been moved to a secure location.” A spokesman for Sloman Neptun said: “We did not want to go into Libya because of the troubles there and had already made the decision to return before we were contacted.”
March 5, 2011
Libyan rebels are mobilising soldiers who have defected from the country’s largely disbanded army, amid fears that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi will recapture towns in the east that fell to the opposition three weeks ago. The development marks a dramatic shift in strategy away from a popular uprising towards a military conflict that could mire the country in a bloody and protracted civil war. “Gaddafi has no legitimacy, he is breaking international law, he is committing crimes against humanity,” said Khaled al-Sa’ayah, a spokesman for the opposition’s newly formed military council in Benghazi, Libya’s second city and rebel base. “We can no longer protest peacefully against him. We have to take up arms to protect our people.” The provisional councils have apparently quarrelled over whether to use the army to defend the gains of its popular revolt which broke out in mid-February. Many government soldiers defected to the rebels, while others simply put down their weapons. Some fled to Tripoli soon after the uprising started. The argument appears to have shifted in favour of those favouring a military response after pro-Gaddafi troops mounted a surprise fightback on rebel-held territory earlier this week.
The military has, as a body, stood aside while volunteer fighters – many of them unarmed or picking up a gun for the first time – raced to meet advancing loyalist troops. But what they lack in fighting skills and inferior arms they have made up for in enthusiasm, so far repelling attempted advances by government troops. Yet it seems the rebels are unwilling to rely on such luck for long amid indications that pro-Gaddafi forces will fight bitterly to control the strategic town of Brega, which is the site of a key oil terminal and an airport – and would provide a launching pad for an assault on Benghazi, just 125 miles away. “We are mobilising the army because we want professional soldiers. They [the volunteers] had to fight in the last two or three days,” said Ahmed Jibril, a spokesman for the opposition’s governing National Libyan Council. “But whether to move towards the west and Tripoli, that has not been decided yet.” The Libyan rebels will also form a military high command, a critical step in forming a genuine leadership structure, which will include former high-ranking and experienced officers, Mr Sa’ayah said.
It was unclear how many of the dispersed soldiers will rejoin an armed forces loyal to the opposition, but the official suggested they could count on more than 6,000 troops. He ruled out using fighter jets stationed at Benghazi’s air base, saying that air strikes would be avoided “at all costs”. The rebels have, however, asked for UN air strikes against regime strongholds. Asked whether mobilising the military would push the country towards a civil war, Mr Sa’ayah said, “no, absolutely not”. But it is arguably already there, with large parts of the nation in an armed revolt against Colonel Gaddafi’s 42-year rule. The Libyan leader’s assault this week on Brega has alarmed Libyans, many of whom were certain that he would be unable to cling to power once the rebellion spread beyond eastern Libya. In Tripoli, Colonel Gaddafi’s seat of power, the dictator’s loyalist militias have largely kept a lid on dissent, unlike in Benghazi, where several army units defected to the opposition after witnessing a brutal crackdown that left hundreds of protesters dead. But there are many who will be reluctant about giving too much power to the military, which officials have tried to stress is subordinate to the civilian command.”We are trying to keep the military within a civil framework,” Iman Bugaighis, a spokeswoman for the rebels, said. “We don’t want a military coup, we have tried that before.”
There were violent scenes here, just on the outskirts of Tripoli. This is significant because, of course, Col Gaddafi insists that everybody, especially in the country near Tripoli, loves him and that there are no protests. What we saw today after Friday prayers was a vociferous protest by anti-Gaddafi demonstrators. Then, all of a sudden, pro-government militia and police came in vehicles screeching into the centre of the suburbs, firing dozens of tear gas canisters and baton rounds.
The scene was chaotic as people ran away but then they came back, shouting anti-Gaddafi slogans. We knew that Fridays are always significant because a lot of the anti-government protesters gather in and around the mosque and come out into the streets. But this is proof that this isn’t just an uprising in the east and perhaps the west of the country, but there are significant elements in and near Tripoli that are opposed to the regime. Despite the considerable risks they are running, they are prepared to protest and demand the end of a man who has ruled this country for 42 years.
A brutal crackdown intended to quash protests has quieted Libya’s capital and instilled fear in its residents. In the eastern city of Zawiya, intense clashes have broken out, leaving protesters there on edge as forces loyal to autocrat Moammar Gadhafi surround the city with vehicles and heavy artillery. In Benghazi, the seat of opposition power, an explosion has killed possibly dozens of people, though the cause remains unclear. And yet, Libyans have continued to protest in large numbers. A video we posted earlier showed thousands of Libyans taking to the streets in Misurata, a city in northwest Libya, in defiance of the regime’s bloody crackdown. Another video uploaded today to an opposition YouTube channel (posted above) shows thousands more in the town of Zintan, in what bloggers described as a show of solidarity with protesters in Tripoli. An eyewitness said residents from “all of the mountain cities” surrounding Zintan had poured into the city to hold demonstrations.
As the Gadhafi regime digs in and resorts to more desperate measures — including shutting off Internet access, kidnapping and arresting demonstrators and blocking the supply of electricity to opposition-held territories — the fighting is likely to intensify. After a week of skirmishes, it’s also somewhat unclear where both sides stand. Libyan state television has announced, for example, that the Gadhafi government has retaken the city of Zawiya, a key city in northwest Libya that has been the scene of fierce clashes over the last several days. But opposition forces and eyewitnesses have disputed that claim. Anti-Gadhafi forces, meanwhile, say they have won control of Ras Lanuf, a strategic oil town on the Libyan coast, and are now advancing toward Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte. To help clarify the situation, Iyad El-Baghdadi, a Dubai-based blogger who has been posting updates from contacts in Libya, has put together two helpful maps that show which cities are controlled by opposition forces and which are controlled by Gadhafi. This, according to El-Baghdadi, is the situation in the west near Tripoli:
File No.: 2011/108/OS/CCC
Date of publication: 04 March 2011
The individuals listed in this Notice have been identified as being involved in or complicit in planning attacks, including aerial bombardments, on civilian populations. As events unfold, these individuals may attempt to travel or to move assets, which would constitute a threat to both the civilian population in Libya and in other countries. They are subject to one or more of the following UN sanctions: Travel Ban and Assets Freeze. INTERPOL has produced this Orange Notice with the identities of the sanctioned individuals linked to the relevant portion of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1970 (2011) to warn INTERPOL member countries of the danger implicit in their movement and in the movement of their assets. The publication of this Notice is also intended to facilitate INTERPOL member countries that are also UN member countries to effectively implement Resolution 1970. Once the relevant UN Committee for monitoring the implementation of these sanctions has had an opportunity to consider the matter, INTERPOL will work to obtain the issuance of INTERPOL – UN Security Council Special Notices for these individuals, as we have done with the 1267 Committee. INTERPOL-UN Special Notices are designed to allow INTERPOL to assist the UN directly in making its
March 4, 2011
A diplomat dispatched to Geneva from Tripoli by Libya’s government to replace colleagues who spoke out against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi at the United Nations last week, has defected and denounced the regime himself. The diplomat, Muhammad Murad Hamimah, told BBC News on Friday from Egypt that the population of Tripoli is almost entirely against Colonel Qaddafi but is being “held hostage by the security forces.” Asked about images of pro-Qaddafi rallies shown on Libyan state television, Mr. Hamimah said that it is not hard to round up one or two thousand people to demonstrate for the cameras if you pay them.
On Thursday, the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation reported that Mr. Hamimah had released a statement after leaving Libya in which he said that he would not serve as Libya’s U.N. representative in Geneva, just days after he had been appointed to that post. As the Swiss broadcaster reported: He accused the Qaddafi regime of “committing acts of violence against the people, and the use of mercenaries”. He said he “stood by the Libyan revolution,” which is attempting to overthrow the dictatorship. [...] Hamimah says he “rejects the mandate from the government, which has lost its legitimacy as a result of the commission of acts of violence, intimidation and random murder against masses of innocent people.” The use of force against the peaceful population “constitutes a flagrant violation of the principles of human rights and international humanitarian law”, the statement said. “I stand by the Libyan revolution, and support my people’s brave uprising to obtain freedom and democracy and the eradication of corruption.”
March 4, 2011
Libyan rebels have been locked in fierce battles with pro-Gaddafi forces on two fronts. Rebel-held Zawiya, just 50km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, was the subject of a fierce government assault. Both sides later claimed to be in control. Heavy casualties were reported there and in other key cities, including the eastern port of Ras Lanuf. Dozens of people were also killed and hurt in apparently accidental blasts at an arms dump in rebel-held Benghazi. Hospital sources in the city, Libya’s second-largest, said they believed the two explosions were not triggered by an air strike. Reports said at least 17 people had been killed in the blasts. Earlier in the day, clashes briefly erupted after Friday prayers in the capital, Tripoli, but protesters dispersed after security forces fired tear gas and baton rounds. Reports from Zawiya said the most senior rebel commander in the city was among those killed there. One resident told BBC Arabic TV that many people had died when a peaceful demonstration came under fire.
Another told Reuters news agency up to 50 people could have been killed. A second Reuters witness said he had just come from the hospital and many people were lying dead and injured. We have counted 30 dead civilians,” he said. “The hospital was full. They could not find space for the casualties.” Libyan state television said the town had been retaken by pro-Gaddafi forces, although later government reports spoke of “pockets of resistance”. After nightfall, some unconfirmed reports said electricity had been cut and there were fears of further government attacks. Fierce fighting was also reported outside Ras Lanuf, with the sound of multiple explosions and heavy artillery being heard after opposition fighters advanced on the city. Pro-Gaddafi forces withdrew to Ras Lanuf two days ago after a battle. Rebels at Ras Lanuf later told news agencies they had taken complete control of the town, but there was no independent confirmation. There were also conflicting reports about the situation in Brega. Some government sources said the town was in rebel hands, while others insisted it was not.
March 4, 2011
A fierce battle has been raging in the key Libyan city of Zawiya, after loyalist forces launched an operation to retake it from rebels, reports say. Heavy casualties are reported, with one witness telling Reuters news agency up to 50 people were dead. Fierce fighting was also reported in the oil port of Ras Lanuf, while in the capital, Tripoli, security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters. Rebels aiming to end Col Gaddafi’s 41-year rule still hold other areas. Reports from Zawiya, about 30 miles (50 km) west of Tripoli, said the most senior rebel commander in the city was among those killed. One resident told BBC Arabic TV that many people had died when a peaceful demonstration came under fire. A second Reuters witness said he had just come from the hospital and many people were lying dead and injured.
TRIPOLI, Libya — Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi fired tear gas at protesters who marched in Tripoli on Friday, calling for the Libyan leader’s ouster in defiance of a fierce crackdown by regime supporters that has spread fear in the capital.More than 1,500 protesters marched out of the Murad Agha mosque after noon prayers in the eastern Tripoli district of Tajoura, chanting “the people want to bring the regime down” and waved the red, black and green flag of Libya’s pre-Gaddafi monarchy, adopted as the banner up the uprising. The protesters transformed a nearby square, tearing down posters of the Libyan leader and replacing them with the flags. They spray-painted walls with graffiti reading, “Down with Gaddafi” and “Tajoura will dig your grave.” But soon after the march began, security forces fired tear gas at the crowd, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene. The protesters scattered, but rejoined to continue their march. Then security forces fired live ammunition, scattering the protesters again – though it was not immediately clear if they fired in the air or at people. Similar protests a week ago were met by a brutal crackdown, when militiamen opened fire on demonstrators moments after they began their marches, killing a still unknown number. Since then, pro-Gaddafi forces have carried out a wave of arrests against suspected demonstrators, snatching some from their homes in nighttime raids.
“I am not afraid,” said one 29-year-old man among the protesters. He said in the protests a week ago one of his relatives was shot to death – not by militias, he said, but by a pro-Gaddafi infiltrator among the demonstrations. “There are many spies among us. But we want to show the world that we are not afraid” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fears of retaliation. Control of the capital is crucial to the Libyan leader, since it remains his strongest remaining bastion amid the uprising that began on Feb. 15 and has broken the entire eastern half of Libya out of his control. Even some cities in the west near Tripoli have fallen to the uprising, and the opposition has repelled repeated attacks by pro-Gaddafi forces trying to take back the territories. A large force from a brigade led by one of Gaddafi’s sons led a new attack Friday on Zawiya, the closest opposition-held city to Tripoli, a resident said. The troops from the Khamis Brigade – named after the son – attacked Zawiya’s western side, firing mortars and then engaging in battles of heavy machine guns and automatic weapons with armed residents and allied army units, said the resident. “Our men are fighting back the force, which is big,” the resident said. Zawiya, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, has beaten back several assaults the past week.
Throughout the night and into the early hours Friday, pro-Gaddafi forces also fired mortars and anti-aircraft guns at the outskirts of opposition-held Misrata, Libya’s third largest city located just east of Tripoli, a doctor in the city said. He said it appeared to be an intimidation tactic, causing no casualties. The crisis has turned into something of deadlock between the two sides. Gaddafi’s forces have been unable to take back significant ground from the rebellion. At the same time, his opponents, made up of ragtag citizen militias backed by mutinous army units, don’t seem to have the capabilities to make a military move against territory still in regime hands. Instead, the eastern-based opposition is hoping that residents of those areas – including Tripoli – will be able to rise up like they did in other cities where protesters drove out Gaddafi loyalists. Friday could be a significant test of whether the opposition can maintain protests in Tripoli in the face of a fearsome clampdown. Several hours before prayers, security forces began to take up positions. Internet services, which have been spotty throughout Libya’s upheaval, appeared to be halted completely in Tripoli on Friday. In Tajoura, scene of protests last week, police set up two checkpoints on the main highway leading to downtown. They stopped cars to search them, check drivers’ ID and ask where they were going or coming from.
Before noon prayers, worshippers massd in Tajoura’s Murad Agha mosque, debating on what to do next. They said messages between Tripoli organizers were being aired on radio being aired from Benghazi, the main city in the opposition-held east, and audible in the capital. At one point, they decided to hold a sit-in inside the mosque to avoid coming under gunfire by stepping outside. “Gaddafi lies with impunity,” said one 80-year-old among the worshippers, wearing traditional Libyan dress. “For 40 years, he never told the truth.” But in the end, the 400 worshippers inside marched out, joined by hundreds of others. Some protests in other parts of the capital appeared to have not gotten off the ground. One resident said he went to prayers at a downtown mosque and found police officers standing outside to ensure no one marched. After prayers, the worshippers dispersed without protests. The resident added that authorities distributed Thursday leaflets calling on people to gather after the Friday prayers in the Green Square to show support for the “Brother Leader,” Gaddafi.
March 4, 2011
Libyan security forces have used tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters after Friday prayers in Col Gaddafi’s stronghold of Tripoli. A BBC reporter in the flashpoint eastern suburb of Tajoura said demonstrators had burnt the official Libyan flag. Secret police had tightened security in the area earlier, and Gaddafi loyalists set up traffic checkpoints. Unrest was also reported in the town of Zawiya and the oil port of Ras Lanuf. Reports from Ras Lanuf described the sound of multiple explosions and heavy artillery on the outskirts of the port. Opposition fighters had reportedly advanced on the city. Pro-Gaddafi forces withdrew to Ras Lanuf two days ago after a battle. Rebels later said they had seized the airport at Ras Lanuf, while state television reported that the town of Zawiya had been retaken by pro-Gaddafi forces. There was no independent confirmation of either claim.
The Libyan revolt, which broke out in mid-February to end Col Gaddafi’s 41-year rule, had appeared to have reached deadlock. The BBC’s Wyre Davies in Tajoura says the protesters were calling for the fall of the Gaddafi government when suddenly police opened fire with dozens of tear gas canisters and baton rounds. The atmosphere had been tense earlier, as noon prayers began in Tajoura’s main mosque, while secret police milled around outside. There was also a heavy military presence on main roads around the district, where Gaddafi loyalists have been searching cars at checkpoints. There were unconfirmed reports of mosques having been closed and arrests overnight, while internet services appeared to have been cut off. The authorities stopped some foreign journalists leaving the main media hotel in Tripoli, saying it was to protect them from “al-Qaeda elements”.
Reporters were later told they could leave the hotel on condition they boarded official buses to government-selected locations. Protests last week after Friday prayers in several districts of the city ended in bloodshed when government forces fired on civilians, witnesses have said. Pro-Gaddafi militias have been roaming Tripoli in civilian cars, according to residents. A wave of detentions, killings and disappearances has been reported in the city in recent days. Jon Leyne reports from Benghazi, as Libyan rebels prepare to take the west of the country Bodies of missing people have reportedly been left in the street.
- A Libyan warplane bombed the rebel-held Mediterranean port town of Ajdabiya, narrowly missing a munitions dump
- Gaddafi forces carried out the second air raid in as many days on the nearby key rebel-held harbour of Brega, home to the country’s second-largest oil facility, Al Arabiya news network reported
- Interpol issued an “orange alert” relating to Col Gaddafi and 15 other Libyans, saying it would help member states enforce sanctions against them
- The European Union’s humanitarian aid commissioner demanded that Libya allow help into the country, citing increasing concerns over the situation of refugees in border areas, AFP reported
The opposition – a mixture of citizen militias and army defectors armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades – have also been securing Brega in anticipation of a fresh onslaught by Gaddafi loyalists. Several hundred mercenaries from the Tuareg community in the north African country of Mali have just joined government forces, a senior Malian official told the BBC. The major western rebel-held cities of Zawiya and Misrata have also repelled attacks by Gaddafi loyalists. The leader of the opposition National Libyan Council reportedly told cheering crowds in Libya’s second city of Benghazi they would not give up. “We are people who fight, we don’t surrender,” former Libyan Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who went over to the opposition last month, was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency. The UN refugee agency UNHCR has expressed new concern that people trying to flee into Tunisia may be finding their way blocked by armed pro-government forces, after a sudden drop in the numbers crossing the border.
An estimated 10,000 people a day were crossing the border earlier in the week, but the number suddenly fell to fewer than 2,000 on Thursday, the agency says. “Many of those who have crossed the border appear to be frightened and are unwilling to speak,” UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming. “We believe that has implications – that they may have been intimidated in some way.” Tens of thousands of people, most of them migrant workers, have streamed to the border since the unrest began, sparking a humanitarian crisis.
March 3, 2011
The police took all the keys to Bilhaj’s brother’s house, including those to the tall metal gates outside, so Bilhaj clambers over a wall to get in. We follow him. The doors of the house are broken down, the wood splintered. Bilhaj – not his real name – says the police sprayed something from an aerosol into the locks before they were shattered. Inside, there are clothes scattered on the floor, including a blue uniform. Bilhaj’s 35-year-old brother was once in the Libyan police. There are open drawers from where Bilhaj says money and four phones were taken. An ashtray has been overturned on the carpet. Bilhaj’s brother was taken at 3.30am on Wednesday after a dozen four-wheel-drives arrived in the sandy little square of the working-class neighbourhood of Tajura, on Tripoli’s eastern edge, where his extended family live. They took the former policeman along with his other brother, aged 32. Bilhaj says – but it is impossible to check – that 20 men and youths in his immediate neighbourhood were arrested. The night before, 12 men were taken and four more the night before that.
If Bilhaj’s account seems credible it is because of the evidence of the raided house and the visceral sense of fear that emanates from him. Unemployed like many in the area, he is a compact man in a red pullover, tan jeans and white flip-flops. His fear is visible in every word he says. He rattles out his words like a machine gun, his body tense as a boxer’s. His eyes are red-rimmed due to lack of sleep. What Bilhaj describes is a concerted crackdown on this neighbourhood, one of the main centres of opposition to Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Tripoli – an attempt to ensure that there are few willing to risk appearing on the streets for Friday’s Libyan day of rage. Tajura, with its population of about 100,000, is made up mainly of poor and middle-class Libyans who live in three-storey apartment blocks and houses built around little squares and alleys. It is here that residents say gunmen in pickup trucks fired wildly into the crowd last week. It now feels like a ghost town, with shops shuttered and few people on the streets, which still bear the scars of the clashes.
We had been met on a dark corner by a group of youths keeping watch on the street. They were suspicious of the driver, who was sent away after being questioned briefly. There was evidence on the roadside of felled palm trees that had been used as barricades and anti-government graffiti, painted over with red paint. “Fifteen of them came and kicked in the door,” Bilhaj says inside the house. “They turned the house upside down. In this neighbourhood, 20 have disappeared. We don’t know where they have gone. “The people in this area feel threatened. They are scared. The government says if there are any protests in the streets here they will burn them.” We ask what his brothers did to be arrested. “They spoke out. They were targeted because they were ones who oppose the government. Tonight they will come and take more people. Our street is almost empty. The men have been taken and the families fled elsewhere.”
It is quiet in the square. Bilhaj shows us the tyre tracks where the police cars swept in. Dogs bark occasionally but there are no people visible. Bilhaj does not sleep at home but stays in different places. “I don’t sleep at night. After what has happened no one wants to sleep in their houses any more. We don’t know who is with us and who’s against us,” he says. “They know who we are. When you go in the street [to demonstrate] they take your names and photograph who’s there. They call this area a terrorist area that is against Muammar. I hide in rooms outside the area.” He says the police come after 1am when the traffic has gone from the streets. That’s when the young men leave as well. We ask if he knows where the men are being taken, but he says he doesn’t. “They took one man and released him for a day. Then they took him again.”
He makes the same claim I have heard before of those injured being taken from the hospitals: bodies disappearing. It is impossible to verify. “People are not even able to speak. Soon there will be no more people left calling for change of the regime.” The fear is so great now, he says, he is not sure how many people will be prepared to demonstrate on Friday. “People are afraid. Some will come out. But many are scared.” Last week anti-government protesters set out from Tajura to try to march to the district’s central square but came under fire. Now, the regime has so intimidated its opponents in Tripoli that it appears to have secured the city for the time being. The crackdown in the last few days in this district follows the deaths, according to opposition sources, of at least 17 people in Tajura. The regime, including Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, has repeatedly denied that any force has been used against demonstrators.
Bilhaj tells a very different story from the impression the government wants to give of Tajura. Two days ago when the Guardian was taken to the same suburb by the regime’s minders it was met by an organised demonstration of about 150 who shouted support for Gaddafi, watched by stony-faced residents on the balconies above. Tajura is not with the regime. Whether it is still prepared to defy it remains to be seen.
————————- END —————————-