Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Libyan Government Forces Kill 400 Western-backed Rebels in Battle for Tripoli

AUGUST 25, 2011.

Loyalist Fighters Dig In as Libya Rebels Set Bounty

Gun Fire Breaks Out in Spots Inside Tripoli

Gadhafi Urges Residents to Free Capital.

By CHARLES LEVINSON in Tripoli and SAM DAGHER in Benghazi, Libya

Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces battled to hold parts of Tripoli and stood firm over swaths of the country Wednesday, as Libya's rebel leadership acknowledged that the battle to control the North African country is far from over.

Libya's rebel leadership offered a financial reward of more than $1 million for Col. Gadhafi's capture.

One day after rebels celebrated their capture of Tripoli's Bab al-Aziziya compound, the symbolic heart of the longtime strongman's regime, Gadhafi loyalists pounded city neighborhoods with erratic mortar fire. Pro-regime snipers cut off the road to Tripoli's airport, rebels said, and fired at motorists near its port. Pro-Gadhafi forces were also regathering in Abu Selim, a densely populated southern Tripoli slum known for its pro-Gadhafi sentiments.

Convoys of rebel trucks sped among Tripoli's civilian traffic. The constant pop of celebratory gunshots intermingled with hostile fire, leaving those on the streets often unsure whether to duck or cheer. Even so, many residents of the city of some 2 million moved about many neighborhoods and some grocery stores opened for the first time in days.

Rebels' continuing difficulty in bringing Libya under control raises the specter of a longer conflict—with the Gadhafi regime's collapse potentially launching a new stage of unraveling in a tribal country with strong regional differences. Some rebel leaders and Western officials worry that, particularly as Col. Gadhafi eludes capture, his well-trained fighters could launch an armed insurgency from bases such as Sirte, the home base of Col. Gadhafi's tribe.

Around Sirte, loyalist forces appeared to be digging in for a fight. In an interview, a rebel military spokesman, Col. Ahmed Bani, said rebel fighters were on the outskirts of Ben Jawad, near Sirte, but that Col. Gadhafi has heavy weapons and fiercely loyal backers in the area. "The security grip inside Sirte is incredible," he said.

Col. Bani speculated that Col. Gadhafi might be moving in the area between Sirte on the coast and Sebha, in the interior—a zone rebels said remains firmly under Gadhafi loyalists' control.

Col. Bani, whose assertions couldn't be independently verified, said talks were under way between rebel military leaders and tribal leaders in Ben Jawad and in and around Sirte, aiming to allow opposition fighters to enter these coastal areas without a fight.

In Tripoli's Zawiyat Dahmani neighborhood, apartment buildings had holes punched by rocket-propelled grenades. Husks of pickup trucks used by pro-Gadhafi forces were strewn across the roads. Across the capital, residents who ventured out after days of fighting expressed continued unease over their leader of four decades.

"A part of me will always fear that he might come back, and until I see him in jail or hanging, that fear will remain," said Rabia Mohammed, a 35-year-old housewife in central Tripoli.

Such fears were evident in widespread rumors in Tripoli that pro-Gadhafi agents had contaminated the tap water as rebels swept in.

Residents lined up at shops in some neighborhoods to stock up on limited supplies of bottled water. There was no indication the rumors were true.

Rebels continued to battle pro-Gadhafi forces in the southern stretches of the capital, particularly Abu Selim, near the government compound captured Tuesday by rebels.

An Abu Selim resident who fled Wednesday said young teenagers with guns, who he said were members of Col. Gadhafi's militias, were terrorizing the neighborhood. Snipers and gunmen lurked in buildings throughout the neighborhood, the resident said.

An international security company with clients and employees in Libya on Wednesday voiced concern over reports they received that orders had gone out to Gadhafi followers to abduct journalists and diplomatic staff working in the country.

Such fears appeared to be borne out Wednesday as four Italian journalists were kidnapped, and their driver killed, as they traveled toward Tripoli from the rebel-held town of Zawiya, according to the Italian daily newspaper Corriere Della Sera, which had two journalists among the four nabbed.

The newspaper said the journalists had called the office to say they were being treated well but remained in captivity.

Around the same time, some 36 foreign journalists from CNN, Reuters, the Associated Press and other news organizations were freed from the Rixos Hotel, where they had effectively been held hostage at the $400-a-night hotel for six days by gunmen sympathetic to Col. Gadhafi. Rebels battled Col. Gadhafi's forces and closed to within 150 meters yards of the hotel.

In a sign that rebels were imposing order in Libya's capital, most of Tripoli's neighborhoods appeared to be overseen by watch groups that were clandestinely formed before rebels stormed the city Sunday night. On Wednesday, group members manned checkpoints, checked passing vehicles and stood watch on street corners with AK-47s slung over their shoulders.

The watch groups appear to have so far staved off the sort of widespread looting that gripped Baghdad after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's rule in 2003. Rebels and residents express hope that the groups, coupled with broad popular support for the rebels, will help the rebel leadership squash any nascent insurgency by Gadhafi loyalists, as similar watch groups helped quell the insurgency in Iraq in 2008.

Opposition leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil said he feared the country would remain wracked by violence as long as Col. Gadhafi remained at large.

"The matter won't come to an end except when he's captured dead or alive," Mr. Abdul Jalil, the head of the rebels' provisional government, the National Transitional Council, said during a press conference in the eastern city of Benghazi. "We fear mayhem and destruction from him because these are his values, upbringing and practices."

Mr. Abdul Jalil said an association of businessmen in Benghazi has earmarked a reward of two million Libyan dinars, or about $1.35 million, to anyone who captures Col. Gadhafi.

The rebel leader also pleaded with members of the strongman's inner circle to either kill or capture him, promising that Libyan society would reward whoever does so with amnesty for past crimes. "Maybe a lesser evil prevents a greater evil," he said.

More than 400 rebel fighters died and over 2,000 were injured in the fight for Tripoli, while short of 600 Gadhafi loyalists had been captured, he said.

Mr. Abdul Jalil said he doesn't mind if Col. Gadhafi leaves Libya after he publicly relinquishes power to prevent a long showdown. He said Col. Gadhafi's arrest warrant for crimes against humanity, issued by the International Criminal Court in June, would then become a matter for the international community.

.North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces are still engaged in its military action over Libya and on Tuesday its jets hit 21 targets in the country, it said. That included in Tripoli, where NATO jets targeted two armored fighting vehicles, three missile systems, a radar system and two military trucks.

At a press conference, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said that the NATO operation "must continue" as long as there is a need to protect civilians.

The alliance is considering offering support to any United Nations-led postconflict mission in Libya, though any support likely would be limited and wouldn't involve troops, a person familiar with the matter said.

In Paris, France said it would host an international conference Sept. 1 to help coordinate efforts to rebuild Libya.

The participants in the NATO mission will be invited to the Paris conference, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy told reporters at a news conference with Mahmoud Jibril, who heads the executive arm of the Benghazi-based rebel council.

France said it would invite other participants including China, Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa. "We need to go beyond the contact group," Mr. Sarkozy said, referring to the informal gathering of countries that supported the council against Col. Gadhafi. High on the agenda of the Paris conference, he said, will the issue of Libya's overseas assets, which were frozen in February following a U.N. resolution against Col. Gadhafi's regime.

The White House said Wednesday that the U.S. is seeking to free up $1.5 billion in assets frozen as a result of sanctions applied to Col. Gaddafi's regime, funds that can help Libyan rebels pay for rebuilding the battle-scarred country.

Josh Earnest, principal deputy press secretary, told reporters that the Obama administration has confidence in the NTC as it moves to put in place a governmental structure. He said the White House has been "encouraged by how they have conducted themselves so far."

—Richard Boudreaux, Leila Hatoum and David Gauthier-Villars contributed to this article.

Write to Charles Levinson at and Sam Dagher at

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