TRIPOLI, Libya —Police and soldiers have been deployed to keep the peace at gas stations throughout government-held western Libya, as lines stretch hundreds of yards and waiting times to fill a tank often last days.
Crowds of men mill around at almost every gas station and fist fights are common, according to residents of Tripoli, the capital. Many police officers posted at the facilities are armed with assault rifles, while others carry wooden clubs and are dressed in riot gear.
The lines represent the most obvious sign that international sanctions against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s government are beginning to bite. But is not clear who will benefit politically from the public frustration.
“We still want Moammar Gaddafi, even if there is no gasoline,” one young man shouted through a bus window as a group of foreign journalists passed a packed gas station in the town of Bin Ghashir, just south of Tripoli.
In a bid to shore up its popularity, the government cut the price of gasoline from about 64 cents a gallon to half a cent a gallon early in the crisis. Still, the shortage clearly appears to rattle some officials.
The government minders who accompany journalists everywhere in Gaddafi-controlled western Libya try to prevent their charges from stopping at gas stations or photographing and filming the lines, many of which stretch 500 yards, two rows deep.
Nevertheless, a small group of reporters managed to speak to a few men in line for gas Saturday in Zuwarah, 76 miles west of Tripoli, as their anxious minders tried to hustle them away.
“I have been here for five days,” said Tarek Dobroz, showing a reporter a small van with mattresses inside, where he and some of his friends sleep at night. But Dobroz said he did not blame the government for the sanctions.
“Gaddafi is good,” he said, even before the official interpreter hurried over. “Things were much better here before the rebels came. Now we start to feel afraid, and we have problems.”
Another man waiting in his car was more reluctant to talk politics in public. The reality is that in western Libya, where freedom of speech is in shorter supply than gasoline, no one knows how many people support the government and how many secretly support the rebels.
“Some people are angry against the government; some people are angry against Europe, against Britain and France,” said Fauzi Aribi, a businessman and Gaddafi supporter in Zuwarah, referring to the impact of the gasoline shortage. “Everybody has a different way of taking this.”
Even though it is a significant exporter of oil, Libya normally imports gasoline to supplement supplies produced at its refineries. U.N. sanctions, though not banning imports outright, have prohibited dealings with Libya’s National Oil Corp., making gasoline much scarcer.
The impact has been magnified because the refinery at Tobruk, a port city 778 miles east of Tripoli, is in rebel hands, while another at Ras Lanuf, also in the east, is on the front line. As a result, Gaddafi has to rely largely on the big refinery in Zawiyah, just 27 miles west of Tripoli, to supply the western part of the country.
There was relief in early April when the government managed to circumvent the sanctions, importing gasoline from an Italian refiner via Tunisia and transferring the cargo to a vessel owned by a Libyan company outside the U.N. blacklist, the Reuters news agency reported. The lines at gas stations in Tripoli briefly evaporated but have now reappeared with a vengeance.
Gaddafi’s government says NATO warships patrolling the Mediterranean to enforce an arms embargo against Libya are also strangling trade, hampering the delivery of food and humanitarian supplies and harming the fishing industry.
NATO denies the accusation, saying that it is not obstructing basic goods, food or medical shipments and that only five ships have been denied access to Libyan ports since the weapons embargo took effect March 23.
Basic foodstuffs such as flour and sugar are heavily subsidized and their prices fixed, but the prices of other foods has risen, residents and shopkeepers in Tripoli say. Imported cigarettes have nearly doubled in price, and tight restrictions on bank withdrawals have killed the market for luxury goods.
Although the government has encouraged shopkeepers to open their stores, several said this week that business was bad.
Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said late Tuesday that the gasoline shortage is the result of “some mismanagement” in its distribution that is about to be corrected. But he accused NATO of trying to starve Libyans into submission.
“They want regime change, and they want Libyans to accept this by starving them and cutting all kinds of supplies by sea,” he told a news conference.
“I don’t think it is democratic, moral or legitimate,” he added, “but it is not strange. Hitler and Mussolini, both of them were democratically elected, but they committed atrocities. Once again, we can see Western leaders committing atrocities in Libya or somewhere else.”