Friday, June 17, 2011

Report from Tripoli June 17 2011


Report from Tripoli

In Tripoli, Muammar Gaddafi's opponents are preparing for a new uprising when rebels draw closer

Opponents of Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli are preparing to launch a new uprising, as they lose their fear of the embattled regime's weakened security forces.

By Nick Meo, Tripoli

7:12PM BST 18 Jun 2011

The first sign that the street was anti-Gaddafi was a surprising whisper from the men in T-shirts and jeans who were loitering in shop doorways.

"David Cameron, very good," they said with a wink – coded approval for Nato's bombing campaign against Gaddafi.

Soon a young man called Abdul approached, eager to tell the outside world that Tripoli's youths have not lost their zeal for fighting the regime.

"We're waiting for the moment," he said. "Bit by bit the government is losing its control. There are no security forces in Tripoli any more – they are all at the front.

"When we tried to have an uprising in February there were tanks everywhere in the capital and it was crushed. But they are not here now. We are ready again and when the opportunity comes it will be quick and we will force Gaddafi out."

He said thousands like him were waiting for rebel forces to approach nearer the capital, when they would take to the streets again. A few weeks ago most people in Tripoli were too scared to speak to a foreign journalist; the willingness of young men like him to speak marks a growing confidence among Gaddafi opponents.

The changing mood comes despite repeated claims by the Libyan government - including, on Friday night, by the prime minister, Baghdadi al-Mahmudi - that it is in clandestine talks with the rebels. "Ask the Egyptians, French, Norwegians and Tunisians for information. They will tell you the truth," he said. "We are sure of our meetings and everything has been recorded." That claim was denied by the rebels' leader, Mahmud Jibril, and by French officials.

The regime hopes that it can tough it out for long enough for Nato to lose heart and momentum; the alliance hopes that the regime will succumb to the slow stranglehold in which it has been caught. Yesterday Nato hailed what it called "positive signs" that civilians were rallying against the regime.

Abdul guided The Sunday Telegraph around the old city's maze of alleys and souks for nearly two hours, greeting friends who denounced the man officially known as the Brother Leader. They were working-class men in their twenties, frustrated by the regime's stifling rule and eager for revenge after their friends were killed and they were beaten during February's uprising.

Most of them lived in squalid, ramshackle slums which missed out on the oil wealth Gaddafi lavished on Libya's elite; but even in residential areas in southern Tripoli, places considered solidly Gaddafi-supporting, young men with middle-class parents were easily found who would speak out against the Libyan leader.

"I hate him now, after the killing in February. He has to go," one man in a confectionary shop said in fluent English, within hearing of bystanders.

They appeared to have little formal organisation and no clear leadership, but are in contact with each other on the internet and by word of mouth. The lack of organisation may make it harder for a crackdown by security forces, who are keenly aware that Gaddafi's rule in Benghazi and the east was overthrown by similar informal networks of friends angry with the regime.

Discontent has been fuelled by crippling economic problems. Prices have increased sharply in recent weeks, petrol, some types of food and cigarettes are no longer affordable for ordinary Libyans, and workers have gone without payment for weeks or simply lost their jobs.
Groups of protesters have meanwhile embarked on a low-level urban guerrilla war against security forces, launching hit-and-run attacks in districts a few miles east of the city centre which are hotbeds of opposition to Gaddafi. Some working-class districts of Tripoli have become virtual no-go areas for Gaddafi's forces, which set up random checkpoints on Thursday to search vehicles for weapons.

The day before, shoppers sprinted for cover when gunfire erupted in a street just south of Green Square, the spiritual home of Gaddafi's revolution in the centre of the city, and after dark unexplained fire fights are now commonplace across Tripoli. Opponents of the regime are also being smuggled east to join rebel forces in the embattled city of Zlintan.

Abdul admitted that the prospect of the battle ahead was frightening for the city's population. Gaddafi has distributed weapons to thousands of his supporters, who can be seen driving around with Kalashnikovs in their cars or firing them wildly in the air at official demonstrations.

"Everybody is worried about what will happen," Abdul said. "We want to get rid of him but we don't know what the cost will be in blood." There was also evidence of torn loyalties and the pressure that the civil war is putting on Libyan society. Abdul said four of his friends, all aged 26 who had grown up together, had been recruited to fight for Gaddafi's army but did not return.

"I begged them not to go," he said. "They didn't even believe in Gaddafi, they just needed the money and thought they would be doing safe things like handling ammunition and cooking. There are so many young men who are unemployed in Libya. Now for the sake of 200 dinars (£102) they are dead." Friction is growing between Arabs and black Libyans, many of whom have stayed loyal to Gaddafi, he added.

One reason for the growing boldness of opponents is that Gaddafi's security forces are simply not very visible any more, although some men said there were still secret police and informers around. "You don't see any police. But that's the point," said a man wearing wraparound sunglasses, standing outside a gold dealer's shop. "You're not supposed to see them."

Colonel Gaddafi's attempts to cling to power have also been challenged in the past 10 days by new revolts breaking out in small towns in western and southern Libya.
His remaining loyal forces are becoming severely overstretched as they are attacked by Nato from the air – there were five air strikes in Tripoli early yesterday and dozens last week – and struggle to hold back rebel fighters beginning an offensive from the east.

If Tripoli's two million population came out on the streets again for mass demonstrations security forces might find it impossible to cope, although Gaddafi is believed still to command reserves of ruthless special forces units, including fanatics sworn to fight to the death for him. Such units have already killed large numbers of civilians to maintain his grip on power.

Tajoura, the suburb of the capital which is most hostile to Gaddafi, was quiet but tense when The Sunday Telegraph visited last week, with a few soldiers in the town centre.
Opponents of the regime say that since protests were crushed there it has become a centre of guerrilla war. "This place is dangerous now," said a Libyan who spoke English. "Whatever you do don't stay here at night."

Most of the noisy official pro-government demonstrations struggle to attract more than a few hundred people, many of them paid to turn up, although the regime did manage to put on an impressive display of support on Friday afternoon.

Colonel Gaddafi broadcast a live telephone call to supporters gathered in Green Square, telling them "Nato is bound to be defeated" and making a spitting noise as he called the rebels "sons of dogs". The crowd cheered, whooped and fired their guns in the air.
One Gaddafi supporter, Osama Madi, who was studying to be a tourism student before
the crisis, said: "I truly love Muammar Gaddafi. He is like a father to me. Every day when I wake up I cannot believe that this fighting is going on. It is like a nightmare, not reality."

On the streets there were still plenty of men ready to pledge their support for the Libyan leader, but that may not signify much. "They say they like Gaddafi, but they have to say that," one teenager said, before changing the subject to a safer one.

Libyan Rebels Trumpet Coordination in Attacks

Published: June 16, 2011


TRIPOLI, Libya — Emboldened by improvements in their military communications, the rebels challenging Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi say they are now coordinating attacks on three fronts in order to stretch the loyalist forces’ defenses.

Their efforts were evident this week, rebels say, as they initiated new attacks in the east from Benghazi toward the oil port of Brega; on the central coast from Misurata toward the pivotal barracks town of Zlitan; and from their newest stronghold in the Nafusah Mountains into the town of Zawiyah on the doorstep of the capital.

In addition, rebel spokesmen in Misurata and Benghazi said they had succeeded in smuggling weapons to cells of allies here in the capital, where residents say there are nightly clashes with Qaddafi security forces in the rebellious neighborhoods of Tajura, Souq al-Juma and Feshloom.

Two Tripoli residents said Thursday that rebel supporters in Tajura and Souq al-Juma were distributing leaflets urging Qaddafi soldiers to put down their weapons and the residents to rise up. A rebel spokesman in Benghazi said that the leaflets were composed in the east and e-mailed to the Tripoli residents to print and distribute.

The existence or origin of the leaflets could not be confirmed because foreign journalists trying to visit the neighborhoods were stopped by Qaddafi soldiers and returned to their hotel. Nor could the level of rebel success on other fronts be determined.

On the most active front, between Misurata and Zlitan, a rebel spokesman said this week that the anti-Qaddafi forces had advanced as far west as the town of Naima, though NATO was urging them to retreat to the older front line at Dafniyah. Rebels and news agencies say NATO planes have been dropping leaflets urging Qaddafi soldiers to leave their weapons and flee, with pictures of an attack helicopter and a warning that when one arrives there is “nowhere to hide.”

Much of the information from the battlefield has been hard to verify and, at times, unreliable. The rebels said the city of Zlitan had risen up against Colonel Qaddafi, but during an official visit to the neighboring town of Al Khums many residents said that was overstated. Several residents, speaking in the presence of official government news media minders, said the only fighting was at the Dafniyah front. Two residents speaking without supervision said that Zlitan was at best divided, with some residents attacking the Qaddafi troops stationed there.

In other cases the rebel communications system may have transmitted overly optimistic reports. Spokesmen in Misurata and Benghazi suggested Wednesday that the insurgents in the important oil port of Zawiyah had closed the main road through the town to the Tunisian border. But journalists traveling the road both ways said they passed undisturbed.
In Tripoli, officials of the Qaddafi government remained defiant. They said that the brief flare in violence in Zawiyah was quickly snuffed out, and that Zlitan, Brega and Tripoli were firmly under control.

After a meeting with a Russian envoy on Thursday, Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, the Libyan equivalent of a prime minister, told foreign journalists that he had categorically ruled out the demands of the rebels and NATO that Colonel Qaddafi leave power.
“The whole Libyan people are Muammar Qaddafi,” Mr. Mahmoudi said. He said to NATO, “You are betting on a losing horse.”

Still, in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Colonel Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam appeared to go further than he had in the past in pledging democratic reforms in what seemed to be an attempt to persuade NATO to stop the bombing. He said that Libya could hold national elections under international supervision within three months, and that Colonel Qaddafi would step aside if he lost.

“My father’s regime as it developed since 1969 is dead,” the younger Qaddafi said.
Western officials and the rebels have insisted that Colonel Qaddafi and his family leave Libya before talks on its future can begin. Democratic reform “is not yours to offer any more; you are a war criminal,” said Jalal el-Gallal, a spokesman for the rebels in Benghazi.

After at least two large blasts not long before dawn on Thursday, government officials escorted foreign journalists to what they said was the site of the two blasts, the wreckage of a hotel adjacent to a government building. It had been closed for renovations after damage in an earlier bombing, and several people on the scene said that no one was injured.

Speaking nearby, the deputy foreign minister, Khalid Kaim, said bombing the same civilian building twice reflected NATO’s “brutality” and “stupidity.”
Around 11 p.m. Thursday, jets were heard again in the sky over the capital, and about a half-dozen bombs exploded around the city.

Security forces seemed not to be as prevalent in the capital as they had been in previous months, perhaps reflecting the impact of the NATO airstrikes or the widening front with the rebels. On the highways entering the city, checkpoints that a few weeks ago were heavily guarded by tanks, armored personnel carriers and well-equipped soldiers were staffed by only a few irregular guards.

And security within the city appeared much less conspicuous as well, with fewer checkpoints along the streets. One rebel sympathizer said the Qaddafi forces had switched to plain clothes to avoid guerrilla attacks by underground rebels operating in the city at night, although that could not be confirmed.

In the Nafusah Mountains in the west, where a few weeks ago desperate rebel fighters were struggling to survive and information was almost impossible to obtain from the outside, the rebels have consolidated their hold well enough to set up an official “Nefusa Mountain Media Group,” with its own Web site and multilingual spokesman.

Rebels in the mountains, Misurata and Benghazi said they had managed to smuggle in and distribute satellite telephones that have allowed them to improve their communication from disparate corners of the country, at the same time that NATO’s bombing raids have severely damaged the Qaddafi forces’ communication abilities. And rebel fighters are now equipped with high-frequency radios that allow better coordination in the field, the rebels say.
“The strategy is to stretch his resources and hopefully draw them from Tripoli,” said Mohamed, a rebel spokesman in Misurata whose full name was withheld for the protection of his family. “The link between Misurata and Benghazi is only five weeks ago, and it is only two weeks old in the mountains.”

The goal, said Mr. Gallal in Benghazi, is “to coordinate so we can strengthen the attacks and weaken him and bring this to a conclusion.”

In a sign of their growing optimism, rebels in Misurata and Benghazi say they have even begun preparing teams to help secure vital facilities in Tripoli in anticipation of the Qaddafi government’s collapse.

At the moment, however, there is no evidence whatsoever of that on the streets of the capital, where green flags and Qaddafi posters are everywhere and residents still look nervously over their shoulders before speaking with a foreign journalist.

Libyans fear the scorpion sting of Gaddafi's informers
The violence and suspicion that reigns on Tripoli's streets catches Xan Rice and a journalistic colleague in its sway

Locals call them pimps or snitches. They wear plain clothes, drive unmarked cars and are as numerous as scorpions in the Libyan desert, only more dangerous. Loathed and feared in equal measure, they are the eyes and ears of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and a large part of the reason that Tripoli has not been able to join the revolt sweeping the country.

The informers' work has caused hundreds of men and women, perhaps many more, to be swept up into interrogation centres for the merest hint of dissent since Libya's uprising began four months ago. A stroll through the capital's old city on Friday morning, which started with a cup of tea and ended in the back of a battered pickup surrounded by screaming men with cocked AK-47s, offered an insight into their methods.

Together with Martin Fletcher, a Times reporter, I had planned to spend Friday morning in Tripoli's picturesque medina, killing time until lunchtime prayers. Then we would take a taxi to a suburb called Tajura where, according to rumours sweeping the city, an anti-Gaddafi protest was planned for the afternoon.

We slipped out of the Rixos hotel, where all foreign journalists have to stay, at 8.45am, minutes before the government minders instructed the guards not to let anyone else through the gate, and took a taxi to the seafront. It being a Friday – the Arab equivalent of a Sunday – the downtown area was quiet.

At a sidewalk cafe we had a cup of tea, and made small talk with the Algerian and Tunisian staff. A middle-aged man in a brown shirt seated near us was paying too much attention, so we quickly moved on. One of the customers ran after us with two cans of Coke, a gift in keeping with ordinary Libyans' unfailing generosity.

We strolled down Omar Mukhtar Street, where five men smoking shisha pipes invited us to sit down for a coffee. Two of them spoke English. They discussed the situation in Libya, choosing their words wisely, and invited us to visit the city when the war was over. They took our business cards, but declined to give their own phone numbers.

"I think you know why," one of the men said. The phone lines have ears too.

When the man began to talk about Nato, the other English speaker, a genial man with a yellow nicotine stain on his silver moustache, hissed: "Be careful what you say." Suddenly, they all stood up and left, wishing us well. Something had made them feel uneasy.

Further up the road, we stopped at the ambitiously named Four Seasons hotel, which had three large pictures of Gaddafi at the reception desk. As we sat on the terrace, a slim young man with a crisp white T-shirt tucked into his jeans arrived and took a seat nearby. Martin walked across the road to make a phone call and I wrote in my notebook. A friendly young Egyptian waiter told us there were no milkshakes – we were getting bored of tea and coffee – so we moved on.

A few blocks away, we noticed the man in the white T-shirt loitering on the corner. As we walked on, he followed us, so we doubled back past him, and slipped into the narrow streets of the labyrinth-like medina.We emerged onto the corniche where, while admiring the cobalt sea, we realised we had a new tail. Or rather two tails; one in red shirt with a straw hat, the other in a blue and white sport shirt. Soon, the man in the white T-shirt joined them.

Suddenly a red pickup screeched to a halt next to us. Five men, one in a khaki uniform but the others in plain clothes, jumped out, pointing their AK-47s at us. "Get in, get in!" they shouted. When we resisted they cocked their guns. We got in.

The pickup sped off, with our three "tails" now on the back. The gunmen inside screamed "Shut up!" and "No English" as we tried to explain that we were journalists. Racing along the seafront, we pulled up behind a police van at Green Square, in the heart of the city. Immediately another dozen or so unmarked police cars, surrounded us.

The man in the white T-shirt took Martin's satellite phone and passport, and demanded my notebook. I refused, handing over my journalist card instead. Shouting at us all the while, the security agents, now more than 20, most of them out of uniform, started arguing among themselves over what to do. Eventually they allowed us out of the car, where we saw that they had arrested the young Egyptian waiter from the coffee shop and brought him here. He looked terrified.

A sinister-looking man called Mortaza – camouflage pants, slicked backed hair, beard, sunglasses – turned out to be the most reasonable. After we told him that the Egyptian had barely spoken to us, he ordered him released. The man in the white T-shirt fumed, and shouted "Liar, liar" at Martin.

A smart black sedan with tinted windows and a huge security agent in the passenger seat took us back to the hotel. As we got out, the bodyguard said gruffly: "We are sorry."

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