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Rebel army may be formed as Tripoli fails to oust Gaddafi

By Leila Fadel , Liz Sly and Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 11:43 AM

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Col. Moammar Gaddafi faced fresh setbacks domestically and internationally early Sunday with opposition forces in eastern Libya preparing to dispatch a rebel force to his stronghold in Tripoli and the United Nation's imposing military and financial sanctions while raising the specter that the isolated leader could face charges for crimes against humanity.

Even as the opposition consolidated its grip on the country's second city, Benghazi, a top anti-Gaddafi leader, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Gatrani, said a small force comprising army defectors and rebels has already reached the outskirts of the capital. An attempt to oust Gaddafi in Tripoli on Friday was crushed by pro-regime paramilitaries and soldiers firing indiscriminately at protesters on the streets.

It happened as the wave of civil revolts of recent weeks continued to convulse the Middle East, with even Tunisia and Egypt, two nations where protesters succeeded in ousting longtime authoritarian rulers, seeing heated protests on Saturday that led to violent military crackdowns. In Oman on Sunday, two people were killed in protests, Reuters reported, as police fired tear gas and cordoned off protesters demonstrating for a second day in the city of Sohar.

But the focus remained on the upheaval in Libya. "We are trying to organize people who will sacrifice their lives to free Tripoli from the dictator," said Gatrani, who heads the military committee now in charge of the army in Benghazi, 600 miles east of the capital and the first major city to fall under opposition control. But, he cautioned: "Entering Tripoli is not easy. Anyone trying will be shot."

The prospect of a rebel army marching on the capital to confront loyalist members of the same army raised the specter of outright civil war in a country already violently polarized between supporters and opponents of the regime. In another sign of the deepening division, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the former justice minister who recently defected, announced the formation of an "interim government'' to lead the eastern regions under rebel control.

Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton before departing for Geneva for a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council repeated her call for Gaddafi to leave. "We think he must go as soon as possible without further violence and bloodshed," Clinton said. "There will be accountability for the crimes against humanity and war crimes" committed in recent days in a crackdown against protesters. Delivering a message directly to Gaddafi and his inner circle, Clinton said, "You will be held accountable for actions that have been taken against your people."

Clinton praised the vote of the U.N. Security Council on Saturday and said the action will allow the United States and its allies to move more aggressively in several ways, including providing humanitarian relief to Libyans. She called on neighboring countries to help the international community in preventing the movement of mercenaries and other fighters into Libya to prop up the Gaddafi regime. The U.N. meeting Monday is expected to explore ways to coordinate sanctions against the Libyan government and respond to the growing humanitarian crisis in the region.

With eastern Libya largely under opposition control, the struggle for the west remained paramount. Towns near the western border with Tunisia have fallen under opposition control, with Gaddafi loyalists, if not staging a full counterattack, battling to slow the sandwiching of government forces to zones around Tripoli.

In interviews with news agencies, Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, alternately suggested the government was willing to negotiate with protesters while warning that the nation was falling into civil war. "The unrest will break up the country just as in Afghanistan," he told broadcaster Al Arabiya.

Pro-Gaddafi forces still maintained control of the western border with Tunisia and had set up approximately 20 checkpoints on the road to Tripoli, with western towns taken over by the opposition in recent days in danger of being cut off from food, medical supplies and fuel.

In the key cities of Sabratha and Zawiya, west of Tripoli, major tribal families appeared to be controlling the town centers but were still engaged in night battles with government forces on the outskirts of town.

"There is no food in the shops, there is no rice, no sugar, no bread, no flour. All you can find there is canned foods," said Mohammed Siyam, 24, an Egyptian laborer who arrived at the Tunisian border Sunday morning after fleeing Subratha.

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.

But it was also unclear whether a new rebel army would be able to muster enough men and weapons to mount any kind of credible challenge to Gaddafi's well-armed forces in Tripoli.

At an air base just outside Benghazi, air force officers who defected said they were prepared to defend eastern Libya from attack but not to join in an offensive against pro-regime forces elsewhere.

"We're organizing how to control the east. We have a good force, but we won't use it," said Col. Nasser Busayna, a pilot who was among the first to defect. "We don't want this to turn into a military battle between two sides. We will defend ourselves, but we will not attack."

During Gaddafi's 41-year rule, he steadily gutted the military because of concerns that soldiers could stage a coup, as he did in 1969. Gatrani said the military in Benghazi only has out-of-date tanks that barely run. Their weapons are old, and the government does not supply them with ammunition.

Instead, Gaddafi concentrated ammunition and weapons in the hands of loyal special forces known as the Katibat, who were trained to protect the regime and are supplied with the latest and most potent tanks and arms.

In yet another blow to Gaddafi's crumbling regime, the head of the special forces announced he was defecting to the opposition. In a statement broadcast by al-Jazeera, Abdul Saloum Mahmoud al-Hassi urged all members of the special forces to join the opposition, though it was not immediately clear what impact his appeal would have or where he was when he made the statement.

On the Tunisian border, meanwhile, thousands of migrant workers from Egypt, Bangladesh, China and other nations were steaming out of Libya to escape the violence. Though more than 38,000 have come out over the past week, the flood abruptly increased late Saturday, as Libyan guards still loyal to Gaddafi suddenly allowed a mass of workers to stream in at once, leading to a crush and throng that left dozens wounded and many hundreds forced to sleep in the cold rain.

Though Tunisian volunteers and army officials were aiding those coming over the border with food, water and emergency medical attention, the vast majority of migrant workers had been abandoned by their employers and were stranded with few funds to get back to their respective homelands.

"They burned my passport and took all my money," said Omar Marzgk, 35, an Egyptian painter, huddled down with thousands of other migrant workers on the border unsure of how they will pay for their passage home. Though he had one item of value -- a TV -- "I had to give it to the [Libyan] guards to cross the border."

At the security base in the center of Benghazi, mothers and fathers brought their children on Sunday to see the burned-out villa where Gaddafi resided when he visited. Outside, a red graffiti tag read, "The house of the dog."

"God is great," yelled Mohammed el-Hedi as he walked in, filming with his camera phone. "I never imagined I could see Gaddafi's house. I was too scared to even walk close by it." He brought his son Jihad, 6, to bear witness to history, he said. "I explained that this man is a dictator and he destroyed Libya."

Outside, Qassim Senussi smiled. "God willing, Tripoli will fall soon," he said.

Sly reported from Cairo and Faiola from Ras Jdir, Tunisia. Staff writer Joby Warrick and special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Ras Jdir also contributed to this report.

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