Rebel army may be formed as Tripoli fails to oust Gaddafi

Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 27, 2011

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Army leaders in eastern Libya who have turned against Col. Moammar Gaddafi's regime are preparing to dispatch a rebel force to Tripoli to support the beleaguered uprising there, a top military official said Saturday in Benghazi.

Brig. Gen. Ahmed Gatrani said a small force comprising army defectors and rebels has already reached the outskirts of the capital, where an attempt to oust Gaddafi on Friday was crushed by pro-regime paramilitaries and soldiers firing indiscriminately at protesters on the streets.

"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.

Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, warned in an interview with the al-Arabiya TV network Saturday that "the signs of civil war and foreign interference have started.''

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. Video footage was broadcast by al-Jazeera of what were purported to be fresh clashes on Saturday in Zawiya, a town 20 miles west of Tripoli that had supposedly fallen to the opposition several days ago, showing residents holding sticks marching in the streets and then running from volleys of gunfire.

A small group of 22 rebels and soldiers that 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 are 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. Tripoli residents say shops are empty and bread is hard to find. Egyptian refugees fleeing into Tunisia reported that long bread lines of more than 100 people were forming every day.

"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, even ambulances.

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