Saturday, February 26, 2011
Long Bread Lines And Open Revolt In Libya’s Capital
Moises Saman for The New York Times
Witnesses described snipers and antiaircraft guns firing at unarmed civilians, and security forces were removing the dead and wounded from streets and hospitals, apparently in an effort to hide the mounting toll.
When government-picked drivers escorted journalists on tours of the city on Saturday morning, the evidence of the extent of the unrest was unmistakable. Workers were still hastily painting over graffiti calling Colonel Qaddafi a “bloodsucker” or 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 heavily armed checkpoints dominated some precincts of the city, in other neighborhoods 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 people killed,” said a doctor who 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 publicity stunt — opening the curtains to the world with great fanfare, even though the stage is in near-chaotic disarray — is an apt metaphor for the increasingly untenable situation in the country.
On Friday, before the journalists arrived, his forces put down a demonstration in the capital only after firing on the protesters. There were reports that an armed rebel force was approaching the city on Saturday, but Colonel Qaddafi’s forces are believed to have blocked the way at the city of Surt, a stronghold of his tribe.
He is no longer in full control of the countryside either. Rebels now control about half the populous Mediterranean coast, including the strategic towns of Zawiyah and Misurata, not far from the capital and near important oil facilities.
But Tripoli is home to a third of Libya’s roughly six million people. Colonel Qaddafi and his special militias have unleashed enough firepower here that it may enable them to keep a firm grasp on the city for some time to come, raising vexing questions about just how the standoff might end.
Until Friday night, Colonel Qaddafi’s government had imposed a complete ban on foreign journalists, had shut down most Internet access, had confiscated cellphone chips and camera memory cards from those leaving the border, and had done whatever it could to prevent unauthorized images of the unrest here from leaving the country.
But he reversed himself on Thursday when his son Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi said Libya would now welcome the foreign news media and officials began figuring out how to issue visas when many of its embassies abroad had already defected to the rebels.
When foreign journalists arrived Friday night, the airport looked like a refugee camp, with thousands jammed into the halls awaiting flights out of the country. Many customs and security officials wore hospital masks in fear of contracting some disease among the hordes.
In a midnight news conference for journalists assembled in the luxurious Rixos Hotel, where bread and other 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 concerted attempts over the last two days to dislodge them.
But, contradicting rebel claims that their victory was at hand, the younger Mr. Qaddafi said the government was negotiating with the protesters and making great progress, an assertion not confirmed by the protesters.
He promised journalists they would find the streets peaceful and support for his father strong. Do not confuse the sound of celebratory fireworks for bursts of gunfire around the streets of Tripoli, he told 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 left in a white van full of police officers. Two small boys approached surreptitiously with bullet casings they presented as evidence of force used on protesters the night before.
But at another stop, in the neighborhood of Tajoura, journalists stumbled almost accidentally into a block cordoned off by 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 random force.
A middle-age business owner, who identified himself only as Turkey, said that the demonstrations there had begun last Sunday, when thousands of protesters inspired by the uprising in the east had marched toward the capital’s central Green Square. He said the police had dispersed the crowd with tear gas and then bullets, killing a man named Issa Hatey. He said neighbors had now renamed the area’s central traffic circle Issa Hatey Square in memory of their struggle.
He and several 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, several said, the security forces had employed rooftop snipers, antiaircraft guns mounted on trucks and buckshot, and they produced shells and casings that appeared to confirm their reports. Mr. Turkey said that on one day he had seen about 50 to 60 heavily armed men who appeared to be mercenaries from nearby African countries.
The residents also said that they had seen security forces scooping up dead and wounded protesters and removing them from the streets, apparently to hide evidence of the violence. Because they believe security forces are also removing casualties from hospitals, they said, they have tried to hide their friends within the hospital and remove them after initial treatment.
After Friday Prayer, Mr. Turkey and his friends said, a crowd of several thousand had gathered at what they now call Issa Hatey Square to march to Green Square. They raised what he called “the old-new flag,” the former tri-color flag 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. The protesters were determined to remain peaceful, he said, because they knew that if they fought back with weapons Colonel Qaddafi would retaliate with even greater force.
But when they got to a neighborhood called Arada, they met an ambush led by snipers firing down from the roofs. Others had attacked with machine guns and antiaircraft guns. At least 15 people had died, he and others said.
Several said they had been attacked by the personal militia of Colonel Qaddafi’s son Khamis Qaddafi, which is considered the most formidable battalion in the Libyan Army or other Qaddafi forces.
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 now, after living under Colonel Qaddafi for 42 years, Mr. Turkey, 46, shrugged. “No one can tell the time,” he said. After forty years of pressure, “you explode.” Two funerals were taking place nearby for those who died on Friday, and he said they expected another big protest on Sunday.
A pickup truck of Qaddafi critics wheeled by just in time to carry the foreign journalists back to meet their official driver, and the official tour continued.
Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from Benghazi, Libya, and Sharon Otterman from Cairo.