Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Libyan leader Gaddafi's 41-year grip on power at breaking point

Parts of Tripoli were in flames last night as the regime sent tanks into residential areas and opened fire on protesting crowds in a desperate attempt to claw back control.

Fierce street fighting was under way in the capital after rebel fighters landed by sea to reinforce an uprising inside the capital, signalling that the bloody endgame to the civil war was fast approaching, with revolutionary forces surrounding the city.

The rebels were, however, unable to break through last night as Muammar Gaddafi turned thousands of troops gathered for his last stand on opposition members inside the capital, with claims from fleeing residents of homes destroyed and roadside executions.

The secret cells which had begun attacking regime institutions in Tripoli on Saturday evening had been forced back with mounting losses during a day of fighting when, according to residents and rebels, around 200 fighters were reported to have arrived by boat from Misrata. They joined up with local fighters to seize control of Matiga airport just outside Tripoli, leading to rumours sweeping through the city that special forces from "foreign countries" were due to arrive.

Gaddafi's troops hit back, pounding the runways and were said to be advancing on the complex.

However, Tripoli residents reported that at least four districts – Fashlum, Souk al-Jouma, Tajoura and Janzour – were in the hands of the opposition with the Shabaab, as volunteer fighters are known, setting up road blocks of burning tyres and debris.

Hassan Al-Showas, who had escaped with his wife and three children, described scenes of chaotic violence in the capital. "It started on Saturday after Ifthar (the breaking of fast during the month of Ramadan) then we started hearing that Gaddafi had gone," he said. "People came out on the streets and some of the boys took their guns towards the ministries. But then the government started shooting.

"In some areas there were men in ordinary clothing also shooting at those demonstrating. A lot of people have been killed others are just trying to leave the city.

"I have just spoken to my brother and my cousin. They say that there are now the boys from outside there. But those inside the city badly need help, otherwise Gaddafi will do even more terrible things."

The Tripoli uprising started the night after a television channel controlled by the opposition administration, the Transitional National Council (TNC) based in Benghazi in the east, had announced that Muammar Gaddafi and his family had fled. Col Gaddafi and his son, Saif al-Islam, denounced the claim in radio broadcasts before the vengeful crackdown began.



Opposition commanders around Tripoli acknowledged that the assault on the capital would take place in conjunction with cells inside carrying out attacks. However, the rebels continued to face stiff resistance. The Independent witnessed regime forces hit back with missiles and mortar rounds at Maya, on the outskirts of Tripoli, as they defended the military barracks of the Khamis Khatiba battalion run by one of Colonel Gaddafi's sons, Khamis.



A "technical" flatbed truck with mounted gun, which has become the transport of choice for both sides in the conflict, had a tyre shredded by Kalashnikov rounds. As it lurched from side to side, 19-year-old Saied Mukhtar stuck his head out of the window and was immediately shot in the neck. Mohammed Khalaf, 20, who had helped carry his friend to an ambulance, shook his head. "He is dead, I have still got his blood on my clothes. What a pity, he would have been in Tripoli in another two days. He would have seen his parents, he would have seen his country become free."



The base was eventually captured later in the day and the Shabaab carried away weapons by lorry for the frontline. One fighter, Osama al-Bwadir, raised a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and said: "We will be able to use their own guns against them. I do not want to harm any of the soldiers, but there cannot be any mercy for Gaddafi and family, and especially Khamis, his men have been brutal."



In a sign of what analysts say is the increasing desperation of the encircled regime, its spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, told a news conference that a ceasefire would be considered. But it seems unlikely to stop the march of the triumphant rebels.



Many of opposition fighters waiting outside Tripoli had families inside the capital taking part in the protests and were impatient to go in to fight and deliver supplies. "I have just spoke to my cousin, they have enough ammunition to last for maybe another 12 hours, but then they are finished," said Nabil Nasser, a student from London. "All of us would like to go and try and get in today, but Nato has told us not to yet, we are waiting on their orders. We have been waiting a very long time."



Nato was, once again, very much calling the shots yesterday as it has done increasingly in the conflict. Facing missile and machine-gun fire outside Al-Azaziyah, the Shabaab were instructed to retreat so that Western warplanes could "neutralise" the positions. A series of blasts followed soon afterwards, and the incoming fire ended, for the time being.



Libya timeline



Saturday, 4am local time



* Colonel Ahmed Bani, a rebel spokesman, says his forces had taken full control of the strategic oil port of Brega. Later he says they had fallen back after Gaddafi forces counter-attacked. Rebels also claim to control Zlitan in the east.



2pm



After intense fighting and numerous claims and counter-claims over the past week rebels finally take full control of Zawiyah, right, just west of Tripoli, cutting off the regime's main route to the outside world.



10pm



Reports of large anti-Gaddafi protests on the streets of Tripoli after sunset, followed by gunfire and explosions. Rebels say this is the beginning of Operation Mermaid, a co-ordinated assault on Tripoli with Nato. They claim weapons were sent to "sleeping cells" in Tripoli by boat on Friday. Reports of fighting in the district of Tajoura and around Matiga airport.



11.30pm



Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim denies that there was an uprising in Tripoli. He said "some armed militants" had been "dealt with within a half-hour" and the situation was calm.



Sunday, 2am



Colonel Gaddafi appears on state TV. He congratulates his forces on repelling an attack by "traitors" and "rats" bent on destroying Libya. "Libyans wanted to enjoy a peaceful Ramadan," he said. "Instead they have been made into refugees. What are we? Palestinians?"



6am



A 600-strong force of rebels sets out eastward from Zawiyah and takes the town of Jedaim, the last before Tripoli. They reportedly advance as far as the 27 Bridge (27km from the capital), before being repelled by heavy fire from Gaddafi forces.



11am



Opposition forces also advance from the recently captured city of Zlitan to the east and from the main road to the capital from the south.



"Hopefully we'll take Al-Aziziyah today and then march to Tripoli," one rebel told Reuters.



1pm



Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim calls for a ceasefire at a news conference in the capital. In a measured speech he says Nato "has gone mad indeed."



"I thought I knew the West," he said. "But in this conflict I saw a different West. The West of blood and disaster and killing and occupation."



3.45pm



Nato air forces assault Colonel Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli, amid unconfirmed reports that rebel forces had entered Tripoli by sea from the city of Misrata, 130km west.



4.30pm



The opposition is in full control of the Tripoli districts of Tajoraa, Suq al-Jumaa, Arada and al-Sabaa, according to reports on Al Jazeera TV. Fighting by rebel "sleeper groups" continued in Ben Ashhour, Fashlom, and Zawiyat al-Dahmani neighbourhoods. Around 450 prisoners were reportedly freed from a military base in Tajoraa after the opposition took control.

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