DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK Published: Friday, March 4, 2011 at 5:13 a.m. last Modified: Friday, March 4, 2011 at 5:13 a.m.
TRIPOLI, Libya — A state of terror has seized two working-class neighborhoods here that just a week ago exploded in revolt, with residents reporting constant surveillance, searches of cars and even cellphones by militiamen with Kalashnikovs at block-by-block checkpoints and a rash of disappearances of those involved in last week’s protest.
As rebel fighters in the country’s east celebrated their defeat of a raid on Wednesday by hundreds of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s loyalists in the strategic oil town of Brega, many people in Tripoli said they had lost hope that peaceful protests might push the Libyan leader from power the way street demonstrations had toppled the strongmen in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
The climate of fear suggests just how effectively the government’s ruthless application of force in Tripoli has locked down the city and suppressed simmering rage, even as the rebels have held control of the eastern half of the country and a string of smaller western cities surrounding the capital.
“I think the people know that if they make any protest now they will be killed, so all the people in Tripoli are waiting for someone to help them,” one resident said. “It is easy to kill anybody here. I have seen it with my own eyes.”
Several people in the two neighborhoods, Feshloom and Tajura, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of Colonel Qaddafi’s secret police, said militias loyal to the colonel were using photos taken at last week’s protest to track down the men involved. “They know that there are people who have energy and who are willing to die, so they pick them up,” another resident said.
Residents of Feshloom showed reporters cellphone photographs taken at Tripoli Central Hospital of a large wound in the chest of a neighbor, Nagi Ali el-Nafishi, 56, and they pointed out a bloodstain on the concrete where he had been shot after leaving a mosque last Friday. A doctor who examined him told reporters that the bullet had exploded his heart and lungs, causing him to die of blood loss within minutes.
Several residents said at least four people from their neighborhood had been killed that day, including Hisham el-Trabelsi, 19, who they said was shot in the head, and Abdel Basit Ismail, 25, who they said was hit by random gunfire while she was calling to a relative involved in the protest.
They also reported the discovery of the body of at least one man, Salem Bashir al-Osta, a 37-year-old teacher who disappeared at a protest last Sunday. It was found near the Abu Slim prison, showing signs of a severe beating but no bullet holes.
And in both neighborhoods, both hotbeds of resistance, residents say disappearances have continued all week as the security forces appear to be rounding up suspected protesters in anticipation of Friday Prayer services, the customary gathering time for street protests across the Arab world.
On Wednesday night, a resident Tajura called a journalist to report that five people had been arrested leaving a mosque on Saturday, including Mohammed Safi, the director of mechanical engineering at a university here. “Every day they take people away,” the resident said. “We would like to know where they are, what happened to them?”
Another resident reached by telephone on Thursday said the police had broken down a door to arrest a relative the night before. “They tried to frighten his mother and sister,” the resident said. “We don’t know where they have taken him.”
As Colonel Qaddafi tightened his grip on Tripoli, there were indications that the conflict was settling into a stalemate.
Flush with their victory in Brega, rebel fighters pushed 25 miles to the west and established a makeshift checkpoint. A dozen lightly armed men stood guard, greeting trucks filled with Egyptian migrant workers fleeing eastward toward home. at rebel checkpoints in the east and at the Tunisian border, many of the refugees have said that Colonel Qaddafi’s soldiers had robbed them, taking their phones and money.
Yet witnesses reported that Libyan Air Force planes had conducted bombing raids near the front, and in a British television interview one of Colonel Qaddafi’s sons, Seif al-Islam, appeared to confirm reports of bombing near Brega, saying that the bombs were meant “to frighten them to go away, not to kill them.”
President Obama on Thursday issued his strongest call yet for Colonel Qaddafi to step down, saying he had lost all his legitimacy as a leader and that “the entire world continues to be outraged by the appalling violence against the Libyan people.”
Responding to the mounting international pressure, a panel of Libyan government officials told foreign journalists that their security forces had acted with admirable restraint in the face of an insurrection that, they said, was violent from the start. They provided a long list of police headquarters and other government buildings that had been burned by protesters last week. And they presented the government’s first official death toll since the uprising began last month: 374, far below most estimates by foreign governments or human rights groups.
The officials faulted the United Nations Security Council for failing to investigate more directly before referring Libyan leaders to the International Criminal Court and freezing the Qaddafi family’s assets. And they announced with great fanfare that they had seized what they said was an illegal shipment of painkillers, evidence, they said, that supported Colonel Qaddafi’s contention that Al Qaeda had drugged Libyans to incite them to revolt.
In Feshloom and Tajura, residents derided such theories, just as they scorned the government’s assertions that its officers had never fired on protesters or violated human rights. On Thursday and on other occasions this week, residents pointed to buildings where they said Qaddafi militias had set up operating bases. They said that at night their streets were filled with heavily armed checkpoints where the police inspected cars, documents and cellphones for any signs of participation in the unrest.
Family members of a protester who was killed last week said they were afraid to host mourners after the funeral for fear of attracting scrutiny from the militias. And after many around the city spoke freely of revolt as recently as last Saturday, everyone in Feshloom critical of Colonel Qaddafi on Thursday said he or she was afraid to be seen near a foreign journalist. Men in a Feshloom barbershop pointed quietly to two figures in plain clothes across the street, who they feared were secret police. “His spies are everywhere!” said a man on a store stoop in Feshloom, echoing a sentiment heard from more than half a dozen others. “there is somebody watching you right now!”
“many people have been killed here,” he continued, “and if I speak to you, they will come for me.”
A few residents said they still hoped that their neighborhoods would turn out to demonstrate against Colonel Qaddafi again on Friday, despite the threat of deadly violence or abduction. but many said they feared the killings and disappearances had scared many away.
A young rebel organizer in Tajura who just days ago had boldly vowed to reporters that his neighborhood would turn out in force, admitted Thursday night that he had lowered his expectations, noting the recent disappearance of a member of his family. at around 1 a.m. Friday, bursts of gunfire were already ringing out over the capital.
“If there were weapons, we have good young men who can fight, who can do anything,” one father said with resignation. “but there are no weapons.”
Colonel Qaddafi’s firm grip on Tripoli augurs a prolonged standoff with the rebels. Their main front line remains several hundred miles from here, and the rebels in the western cities say that while they control their towns they remain deeply worried about the heavy concentration of tanks and other military forces ringing their perimeters.
“Tripoli is surrounded,” one man said. “It is impossible for any power to reach Tripoli.”
The Libyan leader’s deadly tactics also suggest just how difficult the animosities stirred up by the revolt may be to bury when it is resolved. In a country bound by intertwined tribal ties, where large extended families make everyone’s business widely known, rebels say that they fear for their lives if their revolt is crushed, and that they know members of Colonel Qaddafi’s security forces must feel the same.
One Feshloom resident who lost a family member in the protests said the man’s mother had told him: “ ‘I would like to see the Qaddafis killed one by one, and the sons killed first so that he could feel the pain I have felt.’ ”
Others described a growing sense of fatalism. One young man in an upscale cafe said he pinned his hopes on a palace coup. “The people around Qaddafi — that is our only hope,” he said.
<a href="http://www.blueridgenow.com/article/20110304/ZNYT03/103043000/1042/NEWS?Title=Rebels-in-Libya-Win-Battle-but-Fail-to-Loosen-Qaddafi-x2019-s-Griptag:news.google.com,2005:cluster=http://www.blueridgenow.com/article/20110304/ZNYT03/103043000/1042/NEWS?Title=Rebels-in-Libya-Win-Battle-but-Fail-to-Loosen-Qaddafi-x2019-s-GripFri, 04 Mar 2011 09:32:50 GMT 00:00″>Terror Quiets Libyan Capital as Rebels Battle in the East