Silence in Tripoli after day-long NATO bombardment

As the bombs rained down on the Libyan capital with window-rattling booms, the streets gradually emptied, and residents settled back to watch and wait.

Tuesday’s day-long bombardment was the most intense assault on Tripoli since the start of NATO’s aerial campaign in March. But if the alliance expected the raid to reignite the uprising against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi that flared here in February — before being violently suppressed — it would have been sorely disappointed.

“Why cause another disaster?” one resident said, explaining why fellow opponents of the government had not taken to the streets. “The Gaddafi people were very angry. They would have just shot everyone.”

Around Tripoli this week, opposition to Gaddafi and his government has appeared to be slowly finding its voice again. Residents are quicker to express dissent, and some shopkeepers commit open heresy by watching al-Jazeera on television. The government accuses the Qatar-based network of siding with its opponents.

Scattered protests have broken out in the past two weeks, but activists say they are still watching for the spark that will light the fire that they hope will soon force Gaddafi out.

“People are really just waiting,” said one activist, interviewed on a shady side street in the middle-class Ben Ashur neighborhood. “No one wants to make the first move. There will be a lot of killing.”

With the Internet cut off and phone calls monitored, it is all but impossible to organize, the activist said, while claiming, as many people here do, that the writing is on the wall. “Everyone wants Gaddafi to go, even in the regime. They just can’t say it because they don’t trust each other.”

On Wednesday, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that Western powers need to start planning for a Libya without Gaddafi, adding that the leader is “history.”

His departure “may take weeks, but it could happen tomorrow, and when he goes, the international community has to be ready,” Rasmussen said at a news conference after meeting in Brussels with defense ministers from the countries involved in the operation. “Gaddafi’s reign of terror is coming to an end, and we must be prepared for when it is over.”

The path to that goal remains unclear, however. NATO said Tuesday’s bombardment was an attempt to increase the pressure on Gaddafi and further degrade his military command-and-control structure.

But almost three months into the campaign, much of that apparatus had already been hit, and analysts say the Libyan army has largely adapted by decentralizing decision-making.

On Wednesday, thousands of troops launched a renewed assault on the rebel-held city of Misurata, shelling it from three sides in attacks that killed at least 12 rebels, a rebel spokesman said, marking the largest death toll in the city in weeks.

On Tuesday, as scores of bombs fell on Tripoli, analysts wondered about the strategic thinking behind the rare daytime attack, a riskier strategy both for NATO warplanes and for civilians.

Was the alliance trying to demonstrate its might, to lure members of Gaddafi’s inner circle away from their leader?

Labor Minister Al-Amin Manfour defected this week while representing his country in Geneva, a rebel diplomat said. But for the most part, Gaddafi’s loyalists are standing firm, a Westerner with ties to the government claimed this week.

Perhaps the raid was an undeclared attempt to kill Gaddafi, although the alliance denies such a goal, and it is far from clear who would have issued such an order.

Journalists were taken Wednesday to see the charred remains of a tent on Gaddafi’s farm just outside Tripoli, a place where he regularly entertained foreign guests, including Britain’s then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2007.

After a direct strike the evening before, little remained but a few fragments of tent posts, plastic mats and the arms of chairs; a twisted air conditioning unit; and a gutted generator truck.

In the blackened sand stood the burned metal frame of a golf cart, a similar vehicle to one Gaddafi was seen driving back in early March.

The strike came soon after Gaddafi phoned state television to shout his defiance at NATO, but officials said he is still alive.

Activists say that they are waiting for the rebels to come closer to the city and that many people have Kalashnikovs at home in preparation for that day.Al-Jazeera reported this week from a camp in the western Nafusa mountains, where it said rebel fighters are being trained to infiltrate the capital.

The government is also preparing for a showdown, saying it is arming more of its supporters every day, such as one taxi driver who showed off government documentation authorizing him to carry a gun. “Gaddafi will never be defeated,” he said. “If the rebels come, I, for one, will go out into the streets to fight them.”

Gas stations have become a potential rallying point for anti-government sentiment, with clashes often erupting among people waiting for days to refuel their cars. Last Friday, soldiers shot and killed an elderly man in Ben Ashur as two of them tried to control a crowd, witnesses said.

The crowd turned on the troops, chasing them away, destroying their car and chanting anti-government slogans, until security forces sent in reinforcements.

In Fashloum, one of the districts that rose up in February, two men repairing a pickup truck said they were planning to install a mount for a grenade launcher in the bed to use against Gaddafi’s forces.

A shopkeeper at a nearby grocery store said fighters in the area have been attacking checkpoints at night with increasing regularity. “Resistance is growing,” he said. “They arrest us for doing nothing, so we might as well be doing something.

“We are not afraid,” he added. “The barrier of fear has fallen.”

Correspondent Michael Birnbaum in Berlin contributed to this report.

Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in China. He served previously as bureau chief in India and as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, India and Pakistan.
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