Tripoli: Forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi were reported to be striking back in several cites surrounding Tripoli on Thursday, as rebellion crept closer to the capital and defections of military officers multiplied.
The minaret of a mosque in Zawiya, a city 30 miles west of Tripoli where protesters had claimed victory, was blasted by heavy weapons in a morning attack, killing or wounding protesters who had been using the building as a refuge, a witness told The Associated Press by telephone. And in Sabratha, about 50 miles west of the capital where a government crackdown has been under way for several days, gunshots rang out as military troops filled the town, a witness said. With journalists banned from the area, it was impossible to independently verify these reports.
“We are not afraid, we are watching,” said the witness in Sabratha, a doctor reached by telephone. The city was under lockdown, he said, with no stores open, and the buildings of the police and Col. Qaddadi’s revolutionary committees were in ruins, he said, burned by protesters. “What I am sure about,” he said, “is that change is coming.”
Tripoli also remained in a state of lockdown, even as Colonel Qaddafi called on thousands of mercenaries and irregular security forces to defend his bastion, in what residents said was a desperate and dangerous turn in the week-old uprising.
Distrustful of even his own generals, Colonel Qaddafi has for years quietly built up this ruthless and loyal force. It is made up of special brigades headed by his sons, segments of the military loyal to his native tribe and its allies, and legions of African mercenaries he has helped train and equip. Many are believed to have fought elsewhere, in places like Sudan, but he has now called them back.
Witnesses said on Wednesday that thousands of members of this irregular army were massing on roads to the capital, Tripoli, where one resident described scenes evocative of anarchic Somalia: clusters of heavily armed men in mismatched uniforms clutching machine guns and willing to carry out orders to kill Libyans that other police and military units, and even fighter pilots, have refused.
Some residents of Tripoli said they took the gathering army as a sign that the uprising might be entering a decisive stage, with Colonel Qaddafi fortifying his main stronghold in the capital and protesters there gearing up for their first organized demonstration after days of spontaneous rioting and bloody crackdowns.
The fall of other cities to rebels on Wednesday, including Misurata, 130 miles east of the capital, left Colonel Qaddafi more embattled — and his opponents emboldened. By Thursday, there were also reports that Zuara, 75 miles west of the capital, was under control of antigovernment militias, Reuters reported. “A message comes to every mobile phone about a general protest on Friday in Tripoli,” one resident of Tripoli said. Colonel Qaddafi’s menacing speech to the country on Tuesday — when he vowed to hunt down opponents “house by house” — increased their determination “100 percent,” the resident said.
Dozens of checkpoints operated by a combination of foreign mercenaries and plainclothes militiamen lined the road west of Tripoli for the first time, witnesses said, requiring not only the presentation of official papers but also displays of flag-waving, fist-pumping enthusiasm for Colonel Qaddafi, who has long fashioned himself as a pan-African icon.
“You are trying to convince them you are a loyalist,” one resident said, “and the second they realize that you are not, you are done for.”
The overall death toll so far has been impossible to determine. Human rights groups say they have confirmed about 300 deaths, though witnesses suggested the number was far larger. On Wednesday, Franco Frattini, the foreign minister of Italy — the former colonial power with longstanding ties — said that nationwide more than 1,000 people were probably dead in the strife.