Soaring food prices and gas station lines in oil-rich Libya hint at effects of no-fly zone

March 25, 2011

Long lines formed outside gas stations and supermarket shelves were emptying Friday amid signs that the week-old no-fly zone and naval blockade against Libya are beginning to take a toll on the country’s economy.

In several neighborhoods of the city, motorists lined up for half a mile outside closed gas stations, indicating a sudden dramatic shortage of fuel in the oil-rich country. Food prices are soaring, storekeepers said, as warehouses run out of stock.

According to one grocer, supplies of fresh produce are depleted, mainly because the Egyptian migrant workers who till the fields have fled the country. Prices have risen by half, he said.

The value of the Libyan dinar has collapsed, indicating a shortage of hard currency following the imposition of financial sanctions by the United States, the European Union and others in recent weeks.

The Security Council resolution that authorized military intervention in Libya also imposed economic sanctions, the most far-reaching on any country since those applied to Iraq before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

“If a stalemate continues and there is no regime change, these measures will starve the economy,” said David Cortright, a scholar at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University and one of the country’s leading experts on U.N. sanctions. “Sooner or later, and probably sooner, Libya will begin to face internal economic difficulties, and therefore, humanitarian difficulties.”

Many shops have remained closed since the failed uprising in the capital last month that was brutally crushed by security forces loyal to the Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.

The regime passed a key test Friday, the first day of prayers since the bombing campaign began, with no reported attempts by Tripoli residents to revive their protest movement.

Friday prayers had briefly served as a rallying point for Gaddafi’s opponents in the weeks following the failed uprising, but dissidents say the government’s willingness to use live ammunition against protesters and the mass round-up of hundreds, and maybe thousands, of people who took part in the demonstrations have deterred citizens from taking to the streets again.

There has been little evidence, however, that the bombing campaign is otherwise having a dramatic impact on the lives of Libyans.

Government officials took journalists to see a house on the eastern outskirts of the city that was apparently damaged when a missile landed in the yard during the night. The fins and other parts bearing “Made in USA” markings were strewn across the lawn after the missile landed beneath a palm tree. The windows of the house had been blown in and furniture was overturned.

The owner of the house, Rajab Mohammed, said his 18-year-old daughter was hit in the back by a piece of shrapnel but had been released from a hospital and was staying with her grandmother.

There was no immediate reason to suggest why the house had been hit, but along the road leading to the rural area, on the edge of the eastern suburb of Tajura, there were several burned-out air defense systems, including a radar installation and an antiaircraft position.

It was the first time in the bombing campaign that the government has offered evidence to support its claim that civilians have been affected by the strikes. Health official Khaled Omar, a physician, said Friday that 114 people had been killed and 445 injured in the first four days of the campaign, but that he did not know whether they were civilians or military. The government has refused journalists’ requests to visit hospitals.

Staff writer Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
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