By Leila Fadel and Liz Sly
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 27, 2011; A01
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.
"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 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 volleyed 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 the airbase 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.
In a sign that some of the opposition-controlled towns in western Libya were also in danger of running low on supplies, Tunisian medical officials said they had received an emergency request for aid from Zuwarah, a town about 30 miles from the Tunisian border. Tunisian aid workers said Libyan authorities were refusing to allow aid across the border, but Red Crescent officials said they were attempting to secure safe passage for a shipment through their Libyan counterparts.
Correspondent Anthony Faiola in Ras Jdir, Tunisia, contributed to this report.