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Gaddafi tightens grip on Libyan capital as rebels swiftly advance west

By Leila Fadel and Sudarsan Raghavan,

BAIDA, LIBYA - Moammar Gaddafi tightened his grip on Libya's capital, Tripoli, on Wednesday, flooding the streets with militiamen and loyalist troops, as rebels consolidated their control of key eastern cities and continued advancing west across the coastal strip, where most of the country's population is clustered.

By Wednesday evening, Libya appeared dangerously fractured, with Gaddafi's regime intent on fighting but its authority beyond Tripoli in doubt. In the capital, witnesses said regime loyalists roamed the streets, shooting opponents from SUVs. The opposition has called for a large protest Friday.

Oil prices hit $100 a barrel because of the turmoil in the North African oil exporter, a peak not reached since 2008. In Washington and other capitals, attention turned to the possible responses to the crackdown, including economic sanctions or imposition of a no-flight zone over Libya to prevent the use of aircraft against civilians.

In Washington, President Obama said the United States was developing a "full range of options" and would intensify discussions with other nations to address the violent unraveling of Gaddafi's regime.

"The suffering and bloodshed are outrageous and unacceptable," Obama said. The Libyan government "must be held accountable for its failure . . . and face the cost of continued violations of human rights."

But enormous questions remained about whether any foreign powers could wield the influence necessary to head off Libya's dizzying plunge into disorder, much less persuade Gaddafi to reconsider his vow to fight to the death in defense of his 41-year-old regime.

The independent organization Human Rights Watch has estimated that 300 people have been killed in a week of clashes, although some Libyan opposition groups and Western diplomats have said that they fear the figure may be much larger.

A 600-passenger ferry chartered by the U.S. government was in Libya to evacuate U.S. citizens to the nearby island of Malta.

Residents reached by telephone in Tripoli said Gaddafi's loyalists appeared to have reclaimed control of the capital after several days of skirmishes. Stores and offices were shut down, the residents said, while blue-uniformed militiamen set up checkpoints and regime loyalists cleaned up graffiti calling for him to step down.

But opposition groups appeared to have taken control of cities across a broad swath of northern Libya that stretched hundreds of miles from Tobruk, near the Egyptian border, to as far as Misurata, 120 miles east of the capital. The loosely organized opposition protected key roads and government installations, with men in fluorescent orange vests patrolling the area, armed with sticks or rocket-propelled grenades.

A state-run radio station previously known as Eastern Radio was under the control of opposition groups, which renamed it Free Radio. In and around Baida, along the northern coast west of Tobruk, the once-omnipresent portraits of Gaddafi had been ripped down or burned.

"Oh Moammar, dictator, it's your turn now," people chanted.

There was ample evidence of recent fighting in Baida. Buildings on Revolution Street were pocked with bullet holes. At La Braq Airport, spent ammunition from rifles and antiaircraft rounds littered the ground. Civilians and defected soldiers climbed on tanks and blocked the runways to stop planes from landing - a precaution, residents said, after people were gunned down last week by purported mercenaries flown in from elsewhere in Africa.

The ability of the rebels to swiftly push west suggested that Libya's powerful tribes, long a beneficiary of Gaddafi's patronage, were turning against him. In recent days, tribal leaders have declared their support for the opposition after Gaddafi's use of warplanes and helicopter gunships to kill hundreds of protesters.

Indeed, the eastern tribes have long complained of being denied a share of Libya's wealth and resources, and eastern cities such as Benghazi have been bastions of opposition. Such grievances led to a revolt in the 1990s and underpinned the ongoing rebellion that began in Benghazi last week, in a country of as many as 140 tribes.

The east's al-Zuwayya tribe threatened to shut down oil production unless authorities stopped the "oppression of the protesters." The Warfala, one of the country's biggest and most influential tribes, has also reportedly joined the opposition. The tribe controls areas around Tripoli.

"We are seeing more and more tribal defections. A lot of police and military in Tobruk, Benghazi and other eastern cities defected because their tribal leaders had ordered them," Ronald Bruce St. John, an author and expert on Libya, said in a telephone interview. "I think you will see more and more in western Libya."

So far, St. John said, it appears that the major tribes in and around Tripoli continue to support Gaddafi.

The signs of a widening rebellion in eastern Libya came as more senior military commanders and government officials defected. The Libyan newspaper Quryna reported that an air force pilot bailed out of his Soviet-made warplane and allowed it to crash rather than following an order to bomb Benghazi.

Residents of Tripoli said a sense of fear pervaded the capital.

"We have been indoors for the past three days," said Rahma, a Libyan American reached by telephone, who insisted that her last name not be used to avoid any retribution. "Tripoli is like a ghost town, as if nobody exists here."

She said her father, also a U.S. citizen, had been detained during an anti-government demonstration a few days ago in front of Tripoli's courthouse and was being held at a hospital on a military base. She said she fears for his safety after listening to Gaddafi's speech, in which he threatened to execute anyone going against the regime.

"We don't know what's going to happen to him," Rahma said.

She said two sons of a neighbor were killed at a protest. The next day, Rahma said, the neighbor placed a green Libyan national flag by her house to show support for Gaddafi and avoid being targeted by his loyalists.

Raghavan reported from Sanaa, Yemen. Staff writer Howard Schneider in Washington contributed to this report.

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