Sunday, March 6, 2011

Report from Tripoli


TRIPOLI, Libya—Down an alley in the capital's center, two friends sat in a living room taking refuge from the festivities and celebratory gunfire that overwhelmed the streets Sunday after the Libyan regime announced it had routed rebels in several areas in the east and some pockets in the west.

The friends mocked the claims but also expressed anger and apprehension.

Both said they were previously indifferent to Col. Moammar Gadhafi's rule but then turned against it last month following the brutal crackdown on protesters.

One man who identified himself as a government employee said he and his family switched on the television for news after hearing heavy gunfire at the crack of dawn.

"I thought for sure this is not true," he said referring to the government's claims, which were broadcast on several state-owned channels and radio stations, adding it is "impossible."

He said he called several friends in the east who denied the news.

His friend, an oil-sector worker, said his 2-year-old daughter cried for hours after she was jolted awake by the sound of gunfire.

"I am very angry because they are spreading lies," said the oil worker.

He said that despite the regime's massive crackdown against protests or dissent in Tripoli, many residents hoped rebels would advance close enough to the capital to give them courage to come out again on the streets in large numbers.

"I have great hope," he said.

As they spoke, the mother of one of them could be heard in an adjacent room beseeching another son to stay home.

The two friends mused that Sunday's celebrations were a good excuse to stay home and skip work. Most public establishments and private businesses in Tripoli and surrounding areas remain shuttered. But the two friends also speculated that the celebrations were a ploy by the regime to distract residents while its forces finished off rebels in the few pockets they controlled in the western part of the country.

"The talk is that atrocities are being committed in Zawiya as we speak," said one of them, referring to the town about 30 miles west of Tripoli that has been the scene of bloody clashes between government forces and rebels holed up inside.

Zawiya residents reached by telephone Saturday said dozens of people died in the fighting, in which the military deployed tanks and heavy artillery. A government spokesman denied there were clashes. Much of Sunday's celebrations appeared to be choreographed by the regime's hard-core supporters. Several residents said supporters handed out green-and-white baseball caps emblazoned with the Libyan leader's portrait and placards reading "Only God, Moammar and Libya."

On Sunday, Zawiya was completely cut off from the outside world. Cellphone communication with residents was severed Saturday night.

Soldiers blocked road access to Zawiya. A Wall Street Journal reporter who traveled on Sunday in the direction of the town on the coastal highway saw soldiers diverting all traffic to a dirt road that ran through citrus orchards.

Tanks and soldiers closed another inland road leading to Zawiya. There were military checkpoints every few hundred yards on the highway from Tripoli, which was clogged with Col. Gadhafi's supporters honking their car horns, blaring patriotic songs and waving the regime's green banner.

Some of the vehicles were brimming with pro-Gadhafi militiamen wearing green bandanas and brandishing AK-47s.

Children standing in the back of a dump truck chanted and waved green flags. Armed men fired into the air.

"I am sure [Gadhafi] will pardon them," said Zeinab Meslati, 29, referring to the rebels.

Ms. Meslati, a nurse, came out on Sunday with her fiance to the central Green Square to join thousands of people celebrating what they called "the liberation" of the country's east.

Write to Sam Dagher at

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