Pro-Gaddafi gangs deploy in Libyan capital

Regime distributes guns to civilian supporters as strongman tries to keep tenuous hold on Tripoli; neighborhoods of capital reportedly in open revolt.

By OREN KESSLER, ASSOCIATED PRESS
February 27, 2011 00:22
Libyan protesters shout slogans against Gaddafi

Libyan Protesters holding sign 311. (photo credit: AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

 
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Muammar Gaddafi’s embattled regime passed out guns to civilian supporters on Saturday, set up checkpoints and sent armed patrols roving the capital to try to maintain control of the Libyan strongman’s hold on the city and quash dissent as rebels consolidate control elsewhere in the strife-torn nation.

Residents of its eastern Tajoura district spread concrete blocks, large rocks and even chopped-down palm trees as makeshift barricades to prevent the SUVs filled with young men wielding automatic weapons from entering their neighborhood – a hotspot for previous protests.

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With tensions running high in Tripoli, scores of people in the neighborhood turned out at a funeral for a 44-year-old man killed in clashes with proregime forces. Anwar Algadi was killed Friday, with the cause of death listed as “a live bullet to the head,” according to his brother, Muhammad.

Armed men wearing green bands, along with uniformed security forces, were seen checking those trying to enter the district, where graffiti that says “Gaddafi, you Jew,” “Down to the dog” and “Tajoura is free” was scrawled on walls.

Outside the capital, rebels held a long swath of about half of Libya’s 1,600-kilometer Mediterranean coastline where most of the population lives, and even captured a brigadiergeneral and a soldier Saturday as the Libyan army tried to retake an air base east of Tripoli. The state-run news agency also said the opposition held an air defense commander and several other officers.

In Tripoli, most residents stayed in their homes Saturday, terrified of the groups of armed men at checkpoints and patrolling the city. Gaddafi had invited foreign journalists into the capital Saturday morning, but the move appeared to backfire as correspondents discovered parts of Tripoli in what a New York Times correspondent described as “open revolt.”



The Times’ David Kirkpatrick wrote of witnesses describing “snipers and antiaircraft guns firing at unarmed civilians, and security forces removing the dead and wounded from streets and hospitals, apparently in an effort to hide the mounting toll,” and of anxious residents forming long bread lines around the city.

He and other reporters spoke to residents who described a massacre of at least 15 protesters on Friday, as pro-Gaddafi militiamen, including snipers, fired on protesters trying to mount the first significant anti-government marches in days in Tripoli. Gaddafi, speaking from the ramparts of a historic Tripoli fort, told supporters to prepare to defend the nation as he faced the biggest challenge to his 42-year rule.

“At the suitable time, we will open the arms depot so all Libyans and tribes become armed, so that Libya becomes red with fire,” he said.

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A 40-year-old business owner said he had seen Gaddafi supporters enter one of the regime’s Revolutionary Committee headquarters Saturday and leave with arms. He said the regime is offering a car and money to any supporters bringing three people with them to join the effort.

Other residents reported seeing trucks full of civilians with automatic rifles patrolling their neighborhoods. Many were young, even teenagers, and wore green armbands or cloths on their heads to show their affiliation to the regime, residents said. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Even in the Gaddafi-held pocket of northwestern Libya around Tripoli, several cities have also fallen to the rebellion. Militiamen and pro-Gaddafi troops were repelled when they launched attacks trying to take back opposition- held territory in Zawiya and Misrata in fighting that killed at least 30 people.

Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, told foreign journalists invited by the government to Tripoli that there were no casualties in Tripoli and that the capital was “calm.”

“Everything is peaceful,” he said. “Peace is coming back to our country.”

He said the regime wants negotiations with the opposition and said there were “two minor problems” in Misrata and Zawiya. There, he said, “we are dealing with terrorist people,” but he hoped to reach a peaceful settlement with them.

Thousands of evacuees from Libya reached ports Saturday across the Mediterranean, with many more still trying to flee the North African nation by sea, air or land.

In Misrata, a resident said the opposition was still in control of the city, which was calm Saturday, with many shops open and a local committee running civic affairs. But the opposition only held parts of the sprawling Misrata Air Base after Friday’s attack by Gaddafi supporters, he added.

The resident said pro-Gaddafi troops captured several members of the opposition Friday and now the two sides are talking about a possible swap since the opposition also captured a soldier and a brigadier-general.

Libyan state TV confirmed that the army’s Brig.-Gen. Abu Bakr Ali was captured, although it said he was “kidnapped by terrorist gangs.” The state-run news agency JANA also said regime opponents held the commander of the air defense’s 2nd Division and several other officers.

State-run TV reported that the website of the JANA news agency was hacked.

The opposition also held complete control of Sabratha, a town west of Tripoli famed for nearby ancient Roman ruins, with no police or any security forces associated with the Gaddafi regime, said Khalid Ahmed, a resident.

He added that tribes were trying to organize a march on Tripoli, although a checkpoint outside the capital would stop anyone from entering.

“All of Libya is together,” the resident said. “We are not far from toppling the regime.”

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