Gaddafi faces endgame as he bribes civilians to fight for him

Protesters in Tripoli make Libyan leader's forces retreat, as rebels advance in other parts of the country

Bit by corrupted bit, the puffed-up vanity state of Muammar Gaddafi was beginning to fray at its very core last night. Protesters in a large working-class district of the capital, Tripoli, defied security forces, compelling them to retreat. As rebel advances threatened the last redoubt of the leader, he ordered weapons to be distributed to his civilian supporters. If that is not the act of a desperate man, it is a very convincing impersonation of it.

A country policed and intimidated for more than four decades by a man unhinged by unchecked power now seems to be readying itself for the endgame of his regime and the uncharted territory of what might follow. This being Libya, there were conflicting signals yesterday – an army brass hat captured here, a counter-attack by Gaddafi forces there – but the oil region to the east is in rebel hands, as are important cities such as Zawiyah, just 30 miles west of Tripoli, and – unless he bolts for the deserts of the south with a praetorian guard – the stage is set in the capital for Gaddafi's last stand.

Its bloodiness, in a country where an estimated 2,000 have already died, will only have been maximised by the Gaddafi clan arming supporters. A 40-year-old business owner said yesterday he saw Gaddafi followers enter a revolutionary committee headquarters and leave with arms. He said the regime is offering a car and money to any supporters bringing three people with them to join the effort. "Someone from the old revolutionary committees will go with them," the witness said. Other residents reported seeing trucks full of civilians with automatic rifles patrolling their neighbourhoods. Many of the men are young, even teenagers, and wear green armbands or cloths on their heads to show their affiliation to the regime, residents said.

According to a posting to the blog site libyafeb17.com: "Wherever there are protests, they are shooting at them from helicopters. According to people in Tajoura and in Ben Ashur in Tripoli, the same happened there, too. We see these helicopters – the ones that transport soldiers and military gear, fly over Tripoli from west to east and back many times all day long." And, said another post, "anyone presenting themselves at hospital with wounds is liable to whisked off to god knows where by police".

If these tactics are meant to stifle protest in the capital, they aren't working. In the working-class district of Tajoura, protesters erected barricades of rocks and palm trees across rubbish-strewn streets, and graffiti covered many walls. Pro-Gaddafi security forces were nowhere to be seen on Saturday morning, but bullet holes in the walls of the tightly packed houses bore testimony to the violence of recent days.

This was the area where five people were shot dead by security forces on Friday night. But, yesterday morning, when the funeral of one of them – 44-year-old Anwar Algadi – was held, several thousand attended, and their gathering swiftly turned into another demonstration. "Gaddafi is the enemy of God," the crowd chanted. One man named Ismail, who said he was unemployed, said: "Gaddafi forces came here, they shot everywhere during a demonstration that was peaceful." Another said he had seen 20 dead bodies in the past two days.

In the Souq al-Jomaa neighbourhood, piles of ashes stood in front of a burned-out police station. Graffitti on the walls read: "Down, down with Gaddafi." Elsewhere, shattered glass and rocks littered the streets.

A law school graduate walking to his house in the Fashloum area said he had seen many people shot dead by snipers in recent days: "People are terrified. Few leave their houses. When it gets dark, you can't walk in the streets because anybody who walks is liable to be shot dead." He said Gaddafi's use of force against protesters had turned him against the regime. "We Libyans cannot hear that there were other Libyans killed and remain silent. Now everything he says is a lie."

A shortage of food will soon become a powerful factor in the unrest. Libya imports much of its food. Several significant grain shipments bound for the country have been diverted in the past few days because of port closures.

The apocalyptic vision presented by Colonel Gaddafi's declaration that "Libya will become red with fire" once he opens his arms depots to supporters has yet to transpire, but there is no doubting the steady increase in the tempo of violence around the country. As Professor David Anderson, lecturer in African politics at Oxford University, told this paper: "You have a very strict authoritarian government that is ruled by fear, and I think that is what makes the current crisis so bloody. It is that people know they are going to have to fight for this. It isn't going to be the kind of velvet revolution, the slow coup we saw in Egypt."

Bands of fighters armed with weapons, from AK47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers to shotguns and ageing hunting rifles, left Benghazi to help their comrades, they said, liberate the rest of the country. The talk in the "capital of free Libya" is that Gaddafi and the remnants of his regime are occupying an ever more constricted circle in Tripoli. Although much of the eastern half of the country is without any official authority, there are still regime forces in the area who are, at times, carrying out probing missions. The northern coastal route, the quickest way to Tripoli, was cleared, the rebels claim, all the way to Sirte, Gaddafi's birthplace. It is believed this will remain loyal until the end.

The road to Adabiya, about two and half hours' drive from Benghazi, remains open, but just beyond that, at Brayqah are Libyan military. A group of freelance journalists who arrived there yesterday were arrested and had their television equipment impounded by regular Libyan army personnel. The journalists were later allowed back to Benghazi. Further south, in Awjilah, tribesmen loyal to Gaddafi have carried out a raid on an airfield that had been taken over by a dissident army unit, although they were repulsed.

Hatem Mohammed, who described himself as an "unit commander of people's forces", had taken part in the fighting for Benghazi. He said that it was to be expected that the regime would try to fight back. "The truth is that even if there are some problems, we are steadily going forward."

The exact truth of what is taking place is difficult to establish. More than most conflicts, this is a revolution taking place behind frosted glass – indistinct shapes are seen, conflicting voices heard, but the observers are all the wrong side of the door to discern exactly what is happening. But some things are now becoming verifiable.

It is acknowledged by both sides that pro-Gaddafi forces had attempted to take back an airbase at Mistrata, where an air corps regiment had revolted. This is the third largest city after Tripoli and Benghazi and quite near the capital. Similarly, there have been sustained clashes at Zawiyah, to the south-west of Tripoli near the Tunisian border, which lasted for days until the rebels claimed the city. Saif al-Islam, Colonel Gaddafi's son, told journalists in Tripoli that there were " two minor problems" in Mistrata and Zawiyah, where "we are dealing with terrorist people". Such places falling into rebel hands was a body blow to the regime.

Benghazi is now a relatively peaceful city, although the people are braced for possible counter-attacks by Gaddafi forces. Yesterday some shops opened after days of being shut following a "victory rally" with tens of thousands at the city's Courthouse Square. The little administration that does exist is being carried out by a "revolutionary committee" of activists. The security forces have disappeared, although some have changed sides. "Policing", mainly manning checkpoints and directing traffic, is carried out by civilians in a variety of mismatched military uniforms.

The "revolutionary committee" is keen to prove its credentials for governance and tolerance. The foreign media are not only tolerated but widely welcomed. The activists stress that they are upholding the rule of law, although it is unclear under which particular code. A group of "mercenaries" from sub-Saharan states were tried and cleared of atrocities, and another batch are being protected from any mob violence.

Peter Bouckaert, a senior official with Human Rights Watch in Benghazi, said: "There has been very little by way of revenge attacks against former regime officials, and the committee has accepted that the human rights of the alleged mercenaries must be protected. We know some of the members of the committee as former political prisoners themselves and we had stressed the importance to them of upholding civil liberties and, so far, they have been receptive."

At the borders, huge numbers of foreign nationals are overwhelming any capacity to deal with them. Jean-Phillippe Chauzy, of the International Organisation for Migration, said that 7,500 Egyptians crossed into Tunisia yesterday. With them came thousands more Indian, Turkish and Tunisian expatriates. Some had harrowing stories. One Egyptian said he was forced to kneel in front of members of the Libyan army, who carried out a mock execution. Another man locked himself in his home for five days, running low on supplies and hearing shots and screams outside.

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