In Libya Capital, Long Bread Lines and Barricades
By David D. Kirkpatrick
The New York Times
February 26, 2011
TRIPOLI, Libya — A bold play by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi to prove that he was firmly in control of Libya appeared to backfire Saturday, as foreign journalists he invited to the capital discovered blocks of the city in open defiance of his authority.
Witnesses described snipers and antiaircraft guns firing at unarmed civilians. Many said security forces had been removing the dead and wounded from streets and hospitals, apparently in an effort to hide the mounting toll.
But when government-picked drivers escorted journalists on tours of the city on Saturday morning, the extent of the unrest was unmistakable. Workers were still hastily painting over graffiti calling Colonel Qaddafi a “bloodsucker” and demanding his ouster.
Just off the tour route were long bread lines where residents said they were afraid to be seen talking to journalists.
And though government forces dominated the city center — heavily armed checkpoints staked out downtown while orange-suited cleanup crews were out in force around the central Green Square — there were signs of defiance in other neighborhoods, where the streets were blocked by makeshift barricades of broken televisions, charred tree trunks and cinder blocks left over from protests and street fights the night before.
“I have seen more than 68, I think, people killed,” said a doctor who had been helping out at a neighborhood clinic in Tajoura and gave his name only as Hussein. “But the people who have died, they don’t leave them in the same place.
We have seen them taking them in the Qaddafi cars, and nobody knows where they are taking the people who have died.” He added, “Even the ones with just a broken hand or something they are taking away.”
In some ways, the mixed results of Colonel Qaddafi’s theatrical gamble — opening the curtains to the world with great fanfare, even though the stage is in near-chaotic disarray — are an apt metaphor for the increasingly untenable situation in the country.
There were unconfirmed reports Saturday that thousands of armed rebels from other regions of the country were marching toward Tripoli. Rebels have already taken over and held the eastern half of the populous coast. On Saturday, after days of fighting, they also reportedly took Sabratha, a town near the capital known for its Roman ruins.
At the birthplace of the revolt, in the eastern city of Benghazi, a group of senior military officers who had defected were forming a council to lead their troops against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. One of them, an air force general, said three air bases had defected to the rebels, along with the region’s military police.
And the rebels said they were in the process of forming an interim government to oversee the areas no longer under Colonel Qaddafi’s control. It is expected to include Mustafa Mohamed Abd al-Jalil, a former justice minister who quit to join the insurrection and may now assume the role of interim prime minister.
“The temporary location of the government will be Benghazi, until the liberation of Tripoli,” said Iman Bugaighis, a spokeswoman for a coalition of antigovernment activists.
But so far, the protesters say, the rebel force heading for Tripoli has been stymied at Surt, a Qaddafi stronghold on the coastal road where his tribe is concentrated. In Tripoli, home to nearly two million of Libya’s roughly six and a half million people, Colonel Qaddafi and his special militias may have unleashed enough firepower to enable them to keep a firm grasp on the city for some time.
His plainclothes police and uniformed security forces appeared in control of most of the city’s largely deserted streets on Saturday, and there were unconfirmed reports that he was following through on his threats to distribute weapons to his supporters.
Clearly, both the rebels and Colonel Qaddafi appear to have the will and the wherewithal to fight on for some time.
The selective manipulation of world opinion seemed to be a critical part of Colonel Qaddafi’s strategy. Until Friday night, his government had imposed a complete ban on foreign journalists. It had shut down most Internet access. It confiscated cellphone chips and camera memory cards from those leaving the country. And it did whatever else it could to prevent unauthorized images of the unrest here from leaving the country.
But then Colonel Qaddafi reversed himself when his son Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi said Thursday that Libya would now welcome foreign journalists. Banners in English were hung in Green Square addressed to the BBC and Al Jazeera: “Don’t spread lies that reflect others’ wishful thinking.”
Officials began scrambling to figure out how to issue visas when many of Libya’s embassies abroad had already defected to the rebels.
In a late-night news conference on Friday for journalists assembled in the luxurious Rixos Hotel, where food was plentiful, the younger Mr. Qaddafi, dressed in a dark zip-up sweater, acknowledged for the first time the extent of the rebellion, confirming reports that rebels had control of Zawiyah and Misurata, despite a concerted effort over the last two days to dislodge them.
But the government was negotiating with the protesters, he said, and making great progress. (The rebels, who insist their complete victory is at hand, have never acknowledged any such talks.)
The younger Mr. Qaddafi promised journalists they would find the streets peaceful and his father beloved. Do not mistake the sound of celebratory fireworks for bursts of gunfire around the streets of Tripoli, he advised them.
The next morning, a driver took a group of foreign journalists to an area known as the Friday market, which appeared to have been the site of a riot the night before. The streets were strewn with debris, and piles of shattered glass had been collected in cardboard boxes.
A young man approached the journalists to deliver a passionate plea for unity and accolades to Colonel Qaddafi, then slipped away in a white van full of police officers. Meanwhile, two small boys surreptitiously offered bullet casings that they presented as evidence of force used on protesters the day before.
At another stop, in the working-class suburb of Tajoura, journalists stumbled almost accidentally into a block cordoned off by low makeshift barriers where dozens of residents were eager to talk about a week of what they said were peaceful protests crushed by Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces with overwhelming, deadly and often random force.
A middle-age business owner, who spoke on condition that he be identified only as Turki, said that the demonstrations there had begun last Sunday, when thousands of protesters inspired by the uprising in the east had marched toward Green Square.
Suddenly, he said, they found themselves caught between two groups of double-cabin pickup trucks without license plates, about 40 in all. Men in the trucks opened fire, and killed a man named Issa Hatey. He said neighbors had renamed the area’s central traffic circle “Issa Hatey Square” in his memory.
He and other residents said that over the past week neighbors had been besieged by pickup trucks full of armed men shooting randomly at the crowds, sometimes wounding people who were sitting peacefully in their homes or cars. At other times, they said, the security forces had employed rooftop snipers, antiaircraft guns mounted on trucks and buckshot, and the residents produced shells and casings that appeared to confirm their reports. Turki said that on one day he had seen 50 to 60 heavily armed men who appeared to be mercenaries from nearby African countries.
The neighbors built the low barricades on the streets to impede the trucks with guns. “They come and they kill whoever they can see,” he said. “We are just walking and we don’t have guns.”
Turki said he knew as many as 10 people who had vanished from hospitals. Protesters said they now sought to hide their wounded within the hospitals and to sneak them out as quickly as possible. “We dress them and hide them, otherwise they will disappear,” Turki said.
The residents also said that they had seen security forces scooping up dead and wounded protesters and removing them from the streets. After Friday Prayer, Turki and his friends said, a crowd of several thousand had gathered at Issa Hatey Square to march to Green Square. They raised what he called “the old-new flag,” the former tricolor of the Libyan monarchy that rebels have claimed as the flag of a free, post-Qaddafi Libya.
Two carloads of Libyan Army soldiers had joined them, he said, though they never used their weapons to avoid provoking a bloody retaliation.
Around 5 p.m., when the march arrived at the Arada neighborhood, they were ambushed by snipers on the rooftops. At least 15 people had died there, he and others said.
A precise death toll has been impossible to verify. A Libyan envoy said Friday that hundreds had been killed in Tripoli.
Asked why he and his neighbors were rising up after 42 years under Colonel Qaddafi, and just weeks after popular uprisings ousted the authoritarian leaders of neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, Turki shrugged. “When you have been pushed, pushed, pushed, and then suddenly you just explode,” he said.
Two funerals were taking place nearby for those who died Friday, and he said the protesters were planning another demonstration on Sunday. Turki, 46, said he was ready to die if it came to that.
“It is for the revolution, for the people, for Libya to live in the peace,” he said.
A short while later, a pickup truck full of other protesters wheeled by just in time to carry the foreign journalists back to meet their driver, and the official tour continued.
Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from Benghazi, Libya.