Rebels fear worst if they are captured by Gaddafi

Catrina Stewart finds a sense of menace replacing the euphoria in Benghazi
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The Independent Online

"Do you want your friend alive?" The question was followed by a gunshot and then the line went dead.

As Libyan loyalist forces closed in on Amar el-Huwayti, a rebel fighter, he ran into a mosque, desperately dialling the number of a friend fighting nearby to call for help. When moments later, the friend again took a call from the trapped rebel, it was to hear an unfamiliar voice say those chilling words.

Mr Huwayti's fellow fighters don't know if he was actually shot that day in Bin Jawad, or whether it was an empty threat. But it was enough to remind the rebels that they can expect little mercy if taken by their foes.

Until now, Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has had only limited success against spirited rebels fighting to defend the gains of a popular uprising that ousted the dictator from the east of the country. But as his forces pound the city of Zawiya, which is just a miles from the capital, Tripoli, many fear that if, or when, he brings rebellious elements in western Libya under his control, he will focus his elite brigades on the eastern front.

If successful in overcoming a lightly armed rebel army to clear the path to opposition-held Benghazi, the dictator would surely wreak a terrible revenge on those who dared defy his rule. In Benghazi, the opposition's seat of power, rebels have formed an interim government, and are seeking international recognition.

Buildings that housed Colonel Gaddafi's notorious security services and feared military units are now burnt out, and ordinary Libyans are finding their voice after years of repression. That those gains could be lost seems inconceivable. But the longer the Libyan leader clings on to power, the stronger he may become, some fear.

"He [Gaddafi] is never going to come back," says Salah Umran, a fighter from the eastern town of Durna, echoing a conviction shared by many. "But if he does, he'll cause destruction, he'll kill everybody." Mr Umran has more cause than most to fear the dictator. He was brutally interrogated and jailed by the regime for nearly two years. His only crime, he says, was to pray at a mosque.

A United Nations representative said in Geneva yesterday that officials were already investigating reports of torture by Gaddafi's security forces.

In Benghazi, meanwhile, the euphoric atmosphere is shaping into something altogether more menacing. Two days ago, unknown assailants hurled a grenade into a hotel hosting foreign reporters, and revolutionaries suspect pro-Gaddafi elements of blowing up a munitions dump last weekend, killing some 20 people.

Rebels say that Gaddafi sympathisers, of which there are many, are in constant contact with Tripoli by telephone to keep the regime informed of what is going on in the east.