In eastern Libya, town keeps shaky hold after fighting off forces loyal to Gaddafi

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011; 12:47 AM

BAIDA, LIBYA - The young men of this idyllic town nestled in the Green Mountain region of eastern Libya took control here in a days-long battle. First they fought their way into a security camp protected by 2,000 mercenaries and other forces loyal to the government of Moammar Gaddafi. Then they took over the streets.

When Awad Mohammed's five sons joined the battle, he stood on the sidelines with his wife. He felt fear and pride.

"They had nothing - just sticks, stones and bare chests. They took the guns from the mercenaries and used them against them," said Mohammed, an Arabic literature professor. "We never imagined the young people could do this. . . . I will die for them. These are all my sons."

Now these sons of Baida - some just 13 and armed with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and knives - man the lawless roads as they brace for the next possible attack. They are keenly aware that their leader of 41 years has shown no qualms about killing his own people.

Throughout Wednesday, opposition activists stayed in touch with one another through weak cellphone connections, gathering news of defectors, attacks in the distant capital and rumors that Gaddafi would send planes here to bomb the town.

The scenic wonder of Baida - with its pure blue sky and lush mountains - belies the strength of its residents, who are threatening to help put an abrupt end to Gaddafi's reign through a nationwide uprising that has already claimed much of the country's eastern half. Within just over a week, the government has gone from total control here to none. But Baida's liberation came at a steep price.

At least 90 civilians have been killed in the 10-mile stretch from Baida to the town of Shahat, according to doctors and witnesses. In just one neighborhood, there have been 17 funerals, including one Wednesday.

Now, everyone is armed. The police stations and other government buildings have been burned, and pictures of Gaddafi lie shredded along the roads.

Outside the local parliament building in Baida, once controlled by Gaddafi's revolutionary committee, men and women demonstrated Wednesday, chanting "Free! Free! Libya!" Others replaced Gaddafi's green flag with the red, black and green flag that predates his rise to power.

Inside the building, community leaders met to plan for the future of an area that has no government and could easily descend into chaos. The leaders formed four committees: street cleaning, security, food supplies and medical services.

Mustafa Abdel Jalil was among those who had gathered here. Only three days ago, he was Gaddafi's justice minister. He resigned Sunday to protest the "coldblooded" killings of civilians by "tanks, bombs, bullets and mercenaries," he said.

Jalil said the area's residents were prepared to defend themselves.

The government has threatened to cut off water, electricity and food supplies to starve residents out. State television has declared, falsely, that the area is now an Islamic state, in an effort to demonize the popular revolt.

"The fundamental thing that we're committed to today is to prepare for the embargo," Jalil said. "We are going to fight, and if we have to, we'll fast for a few days and depend on our neighbors."

Jalil also said he was concerned, not least about the uncontrolled distribution of weapons in a place where teenage boys have begun driving tanks in the streets.

"Our strategy is to collect the arms and use them for good and keep national unity," he said as men gathered around to thank him for resigning and to give him flowers.

While it is tense, there are no signs of infighting here. Everyone is armed, but the people are united by their contempt for Gaddafi.

Just days ago, the picture was far different, with bloody battles in the streets. On Wednesday, spent ammunition from rifles and antiaircraft weapons littered the streets. Fresh blood stained the ground.

Residents said mercenaries flown in from other parts of Africa had gone on a killing rampage.

The town's young men reacted with grief, and with rage.

One man took a tractor and broke down the walls of the Kitab security base in Shahat, where mercenaries were housed, witnesses and participants said. In a battle that lasted a day and a half, the residents overwhelmed the forces, killing some and taking others hostage. The captives are being held in secret locations throughout the area.

At the local airport, residents have blocked the runways with large rocks, car parts and other debris to keep the government from flying in reinforcements.

This area has a history of resistance to unwanted rulers. Every child knows the name of Omar Mukhtar, a fighter who battled Libya's colonial masters, the Italians. An uprising in the 1990s was violently quelled by Gaddafi.

On Wednesday, the young men celebrated their victory in a local square, with a portrait of Mukhtar hanging overhead.

Before the uprising began, it was common for people to disappear for speaking even one word against Gaddafi or his government, residents said.

"The only place you opened your mouth was at the dentist," said Abdul Hamid Gebril, a law professor.

A teacher whose cousin disappeared in 2003 said the fate of those who vanish is widely understood.

"Anyone who enters the prisons of Moammar, we know after a few years that person is killed," she said while speaking inside her home, too afraid to allow her name to be printed. "Even we don't know where they're buried. You say something and the next day the intelligence comes and that's it. You never hear from them again."

The uprising must continue, she said, but it will be bloodier than the ones that succeeded in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.

"In Egypt, people sat in the square with children, fathers and mothers and slept, and they sang and danced. I saw them on television," she said. "Here our streets are bloody, and our youths are killed."

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