The West moved to send its first concrete aid to Libya's rebellion in the east of the country, hoping to give it the momentum to oust Muammar Gaddafi. But the Libyan leader's regime clamped down in its stronghold in the capital, quashing an attempt today to hold new protests as residents reported skyrocketing food prices from the crisis.
The two sides in Libya's crisis appeared entrenched in their positions, and the direction the uprising takes next could depend on which can hold out longest. Gaddafi's opponents, including mutinous army units, hold nearly the entire eastern half of the country, much of the oil infrastructure and some cities in the West. Gaddafi is dug in in Tripoli and nearby cities, backed by security forces and militiamen who are generally better armed than the military.
In the two opposition-held cities closest to Tripoli — Zawiya and Misrata — rebel forces were locked into standoffs with Gaddafi loyalists.
In Zawiya, some 30 miles west of Tripoli, residents said they were anticipating a possible attack by pro-regime troops to try to retake the city. "Our people are waiting for them to come and, God willing, we will defeat them," said on resident who only wanted to be quoted by his first name, Alaa.
In Misrata, Libya's third largest city 125 miles east of Tripoli, skirmishes took place overnight between rebel forces controlling the city and troops loyal to Gaddafi, according to residents. Each side controls part of a sprawling air base on the outskirts of the city, and neither was able to make any gains in the latest sporadic fighting, they said.
Gaddafi opponents have moved to consolidate their hold in the east, centred on Benghazi — Libya's second largest city, where the uprising began. Politicians there on Sunday set up their first leadership council to manage day-to-day affairs, taking a step toward forming what could be an alternative to Gaddafi's regime.
The opposition is backed by numerous units of the military in the east that joined the uprising, and they hold several bases and Benghazi's airport. But so far, the units do not appear to have melded into a unified fighting force. Gaddafi long kept the military weak, fearing a challenge to his rule, so many units are plagued by shortages of supplies and ammunition.
Gaddafi supporters said today that they were in control of the city of Sabratha, west of Tripoli, which has seemed to go back and forth between the two camps the past week. Several residents told The Associated Press that protesters set fire to a police station, but then were dispersed. Anti-Gaddafi graffiti — "Down with the enemy of freedom" and "Libya is free, Gaddafi must leave" — were scrawled on some walls, but residents were painting them over.
In the capital, several hundred protesters started a march in the eastern district of Tajoura, which has been the scene of frequent clashes. After the burial of a person killed in gunfire last week, mourners began to march down a main street, chanting against the Libyan leader and waving the flag of Libya's pre-Gaddafi monarchy, which has become a symbol of the uprising, a witness said.
But they quickly dispersed once a brigade of pro-Gaddafi fighters rushed to the scene, scattering before the gunmen could fire a shot, the witness said.
There were attempts to restore aspects of normality in the capital, residents said. Many stores downtown reopened, and traffic in the streets increased.
Tripoli was in turmoil on Friday, when residents said gunmen opened fire indiscriminately on protesters holding new marches. But since then, the capital has been quiet — especially since foreign journalists invited by Gaddafi's regime to view the situation arrived Friday.
Long lines formed outside banks in the capital by Libyans wanting to receive the equivalent of $400 per family that Gaddafi pledged in a bid to shore up public loyalty.
One resident said pro-Gaddafi security forces man checkpoints around the city of two million and prowl the city for any sign of unrest. She told The Associated Press that the price of rice, a main staple, has gone up 500 per cent amid the crisis, reaching the equivalent of $40 for a five-kilogramme bag.
Bakeries are limited to selling five loaves of bread per family, and most butcher shops are closed, she said.
Some schools reopened, but only for a half day and attendance was low. "My kids are too afraid to leave home and they even sleep next to me at night," said Sidiq al-Damjah, 41 and father of three. "I feel like I'm living a nightmare."
Gadhafi has launched by far the bloodiest crackdown in a wave of anti-government uprisings sweeping the Arab world, the most serious challenge to his four decades in power. The United States, Britain and the UN Security Council all slapped sanctions on Libya this weekend.
In Paris, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said today that France was sending two planes with humanitarian aid to Benghazi, the opposition stronghold in eastern Libya. The planes would leave "in a few hours" for Benghazi with doctors, nurses, medicines and medical equipment.
"It will be the beginning of a massive operation of humanitarian support for the populations of liberated territories," he said on RTL radio. He said Paris was studying "all solutions" — including military options — so that "Gaddafi understands that he should go, that he should leave power."
In Geneva, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was meeting today with foreign ministers from Britain, France, Germany and Italy, pressing for tough sanctions on the Libyan government. A day earlier, Clinton kept up pressure for Gaddafi to step down and "call off the mercenaries" and other troops that remain loyal to him.
"We've been reaching out to many different Libyans who are attempting to organize in the east and as the revolution moves westward there as well," Clinton said. "I think it's way too soon to tell how this is going to play out, but we're going to be ready and prepared to offer any kind of assistance that anyone wishes to have from the United States."
Two US senators said Washington should recognise and arm a provisional government in rebel-held areas of eastern Libya and impose a no-fly zone over the area — enforced by US warplanes — to stop attacks by the regime. But Fillon said a no-fly zone needed UN support "which is far from being obtained today."
Sabratha, 40 miles west of Tripoli — a city known for nearby Roman ruins — showed signs of the tug-of-war between the two camps. Today, when the journalists invited to Libya by the government visited, many people were lined up at banks to collect their $400. When they saw journalists, they chanted, "God, Muammar and Libya."
Ali Mohammed, a leader from the Alalqa tribe, the main tribe in the area, said in previous days Gaddafi opponents burned the main police station, an Internal Security office and the People's Hall, where the local administration meets. "I then held a meeting with the protesters to stop these acts the people said they will control their children and since then there has been no problems," he said.
"The thugs and rats were roaming the streets and they attacked the police station and then they disappeared," said resident Taher Ali, who was collecting his $400. "They are rats and thugs. We are all with Muammar."
An anti-Gaddafi activist in Sabratha told The Associated Press in Cairo by telephone that the opposition raided the police station and security offices last week for weapons, and had dominated parts of city. But then on Sunday, a large force of pro-Gaddafi troops deployed in the city, "so we withdrew," he said.
"The city is not controlled by us or them. There are still skirmishes going on," he said.
In Tripoli, a government spokesman blamed the West and Islamic militants for the upheaval, saying they had hijacked and escalated what he said began as "genuine" but small protests demanding "legitimate aand much needed political improvements."
"On one hand, Islamists love to see chaos ... this is paradise for them," he said. "The West wants chaos to give them reason to intervene militarily to control the oil."
"The Islamists want Libya to be their Afghanistan ... to complete their crescent of terror," he said. "This is not the first time the Islamic militants and the west find common cause."
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