Terror in Tripoli as loyalists fight to the death

Heavy fighting continues in battle to control the capital

Kim Sengupta
Thursday 25 August 2011 00:00 BST

The missile smashed into the top floor of the house, punching a jagged hole. It sprayed the terrified people on the street below with shrapnel, shattered glass and jagged masonry. Libya's revolutionaries were mounting their assault on the last stronghold of Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli.

Click HERE to view graphic (90k jpg)

There was no escape for the residents of Abu Salim, trapped as the fighting spread all around them. In the corner of a street, a man who was shot in the crossfire, the back of his blue shirt soaked in blood, was being carried away by three others. "I know that man, he is a shopkeeper," said Sama Abdessalam Bashti, who had just run across the road to reach his home. "The rebels are attacking our homes. This should not be happening.

"The rebels are saying they are fighting government troops here, but all those getting hurt are ordinary people, the only buildings being damaged are those of local people. There has also been looting by the rebels, they have gone into houses to search for people and taken away things. Why are they doing this? They should be looking for Gaddafi, he is not here."

Abu Salim is the location of a prison which inspired fear among Libyans for generations. In 1996, after a riot by inmates, more than 12,000 of them were slaughtered; the bodies of many of them are yet to be found. Many of the dead were political prisoners accused of being Islamists. Most came from the east of the country and "the martyrs" has become a rallying cry for the uprising that has driven Colonel Gaddafi from power.

But Abu Salim is also deemed to be an area loyal to the regime and it has been one of the districts where the Gaddafi acolytes have distributed arms for the continuing resistance. That was certainly happening here yesterday with mortar and rocket fire being directed from behind nearby blocks on to Bab al-Aziziya, Colonel Gaddafi's fortress, which was stormed by the revolutionaries on Tuesday evening. Two "technicals", gun-mounted flat-bed and pickup trucks, drove into a side road 50 yards away, the men at the back wearing civilian clothes, with no official markings, making them indistinguishable from the opposition fighters. Soon afterwards two gunmen appeared on a sixth-floor balcony and fired off a burst, then disappeared.

"Some of them came from outside a few days ago, they do not live around here, but others are local," said Mohammed Selim Mohammed, a 38-year-old engineer. "Muammar has supporters here and for sure the government gave out guns. They also gave out money. But I don't think people are fighting for that. What good is money if you end up dead?

"Maybe they just do not like the rebels. Why are people from outside Tripoli coming and arresting our men? I did not get any money, but I was given a gun. It was an AK-47, made in Ukraine. I have kept it for the protection of my family; we do not know what is going to happen. They say Muammar is defeated, but if that is the case, why is he not in prison?"

As the battle unfolded at the district of Abu Salim, another drama was continuing in the nearby Rixos Hotel where 40 foreign journalists had been held hostage by regime troops. Three of them, including David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times, were seized and dragged inside when they went to report on the situation in a car flying the revolutionary banner. By yesterday afternoon the members of the media had been let out under the auspices of the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross), and went to the Corinthia, another hotel in the city centre, where they said they were in good health and relieved to be out.

Meanwhile four Italian journalists were kidnapped by suspected regime loyalists on the road to Tripoli from Zawiyah, 30 miles west.

In London there were reports that British SAS troops had been on the ground in Libya for several weeks helping to co-ordinate the assault on the capital. The Daily Telegraph reported defence sources confirming the soldiers from 22 SAS regiment had been ordered to stay on to help track Colonel Gaddafi down.

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said "Gaddafi must accept defeat," and in Paris, President Nicolas Sarkozy stressed "Gaddafi's time has run out".

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the opposition administration, the TNC (Transitional National Council), authorised a bounty of two million Libyan dinars (£1m) for anyone handing over Colonel Gaddafi "dead or alive". He also offered an amnesty to any of his entourage who would "kill or capture him".

Colonel Gaddafi's response was to appear on a local television channel, Al-Oruba TV, saying he had made a tactical retreat from Bab al-Aziziya. He vowed to fight on "until victory or martyrdom" and urged "loyal Libyans" to rise up and free the nation from the "devils and traitors" who have overrun it.

Rumours had swept through Tripoli that Saif al-Islam, Colonel Gaddafi's son, whom the TNC had claimed to have captured before his appearance at the Rixos Hotel two days ago, was travelling through the city organising ambushes.

Repeatedly failing to force their way into Abu Salim, the rebels returned to Bab al-Aziziya to load up from the stockpiles of weapons abandoned by the regime troops. But their next assault was also rebuffed by what appeared to be a handful of gunmen on high vantage points. The rebels responded with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-gun fire, which halted the sniping – but only temporarily.

Getting back to the rebel positions involved crossing checkpoints of frustrated and jittery fighters. Frustration at the failure to crush the loyalists has also led to recriminations about failings within their own ranks.

"We keep on hearing that Gaddafi's sons are leading the attacks," complained Ahmed Jawad Ibadullah, a volunteer fighter, from Zawiyah. "What happened there? We were told by the people in Benghazi that the whole family of bastards has been finished. Now we get this. I am a pharmacist. I have been away from my home, from my job for five months now. Even now we are not getting proper direction and leadership."

Ashraf Zain Ali, loading ammunition boxes into a truck, nodded. "We have been doing all the fighting," he said. "Our leaders are flying around the world. We have been told for days that the leadership is coming over from Benghazi. Where are they?"

A little further down the road, Amr Mohammed Bahudin called for more reflection among the revolutionaries. "We have the overwhelming number of our people supporting us. We have had the support of Nato. Many of Gaddafi's generals have left him. So why are there civilians in Abu Salim supporting him and fighting us? We need to find the answer or we will be fighting for a very long time."

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