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Rebel army may be formed as Tripoli fails to oust Gaddafi

Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi held a public rally for his supporters in Tripoli, in which he warned against foreign intervention. (Feb. 25)

At the same time, attempts to ship in aid to opposition-controlled towns near the Tunisian border were being thwarted by Libyan officials. Although aid groups have been in negotiations for several days to send a large shipment of food and supplies, "the Libyan authorities have now stopped communications about crossing over the border with aid," said Zouhair Chakroun, a doctor with the Tunisian Red Crescent.

There is, however, no indication that any rebel groups have reached Tripoli or participated in the fighting in areas where protesters are confronting heavily armed Gaddafi loyalists with sticks and stones.

A small group of 22 rebels and soldiers who set out from Benghazi on Friday encountered pro-regime forces near Gaddafi's home town of Sirte and were executed, Gatrani said, in just one illustration of the hazards that any such army would encounter in attempting to traverse 600 miles of territory, pockets of which remain under government control.

At the same time, regime opponents in Tripoli were grappling with the realization that dislodging Gaddafi and his loyalists from the capital is going to be far tougher than it was in the string of towns and cities in the east overrun by protesters within days of a mass uprising Feb. 17.

Concerns are growing that a protracted standoff could result in a humanitarian crisis, with areas under Gaddafi's control already said to be running out of food and essential supplies. As in other Libyan towns closer to the Tunisian border, Tripoli residents say shops are empty and bread is hard to find. "If you go to the supermarket, 90 percent of the shelves are empty, and I haven't had fresh bread for a week," said a Tripoli accountant contacted by telephone who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If this continues, it's going to be a big problem.''

Dozens are feared to have died in the repression of the protests on Friday.

Organizers had billed the rally as a last-ditch effort to topple the regime but instead it ended with a rout of the protesters from city streets by armed soldiers and paramilitaries cruising the streets and opening fire at random from jeeps, sport-utility vehicles and even ambulances.

"Sadly, that's the truth,'' said the accountant, when asked whether Tripoli would need help. "We can't do it alone."

Others contacted by telephone and via the Internet said they had heard rumors that a force from Benghazi would arrive to support them but had seen no evidence of it yet. They all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear for their lives.

"We are praying they come," said a high school student who participated in Friday's protests on the eastern outskirts of Tripoli. "At least they have some means, some weapons, and we can stop getting slaughtered and fight back."

He said he was among a group of up to 20,000 protesters who set out for Tripoli from the suburb of Tajaura, 10 miles east of the city. After marching for an hour toward the city center, they encountered what he described as a hail of gunfire directed by Gaddafi forces into the crowd. The student, who helped ferry the wounded, saw six corpses at a nearby clinic and said he had heard of many others who were either taken to hospitals or directly to their homes by their relatives.

It was just one of numerous similar incidents reported across the capital in what residents have described as the bloodiest crackdown yet by regime forces.

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