Gaddafi opponents spread control deeper into west Libya

By Leila Fadel and Anthony Faiola
Monday, February 28, 2011

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - The popular revolt that has already seen opponents of Moammar Gaddafi's 41-year-rule claim the eastern half of the country spread deeper into the west on Sunday, with rock-wielding residents expanding control over key towns even as loyalist forces appeared poised to counterattack or impose blockades.

With his rule of the nation at large failing, Gaddafi sought to reinforce his position in Tripoli, the capital and his stronghold, by literally doling out cash to citizens and vowing huge raises for public workers, residents there said.

Firmly in the hands of the opposition, eastern Libya is moving to form its own interim government centered in the country's second city, Benghazi, and vowing to send a force against Gaddafi in Tripoli. Top opposition organizers, though, were immediately at odds over who would lead the vast portions of Libya outside the government's reach.

At the same time, the scramble to wrest control of the west intensified. In the key western city of Zawiya, less than an hour by car from Tripoli, residents opposed to Gaddafi had taken complete control of the town by Sunday.

The government faced a humiliating public relations disaster when media on an official tour, initially told that the city remained pro-Gaddafi, chatted with opposition residents who had seized the town, according to reports.

But government tanks were stationed just outside its suburbs, witnesses said, raising the specter of a brutal counteroffensive.

Such a clash was already being waged in Sabratha, closer to the Tunisia border, with numerous reports of armed exchanges between opposition and government forces. In interviews with news agencies, Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, alternately suggested the government was willing to negotiate with protesters while warning the nation was falling into civil war. "The unrest will break up the country just as in Afghanistan," he told broadcaster al-Arabiya.

In an interview with ABC News, his brother, Saadi, was surprisingly candid about the scope of the problem facing the Gaddafi clan, calling the revolts sweeping the Middle East "an earthquake."

"It's a fever," he said. "It's going to spread everywhere. No one can - will stop it."

'There is no food'

Pro-Gaddafi forces, however, still maintained control of the western border with Tunisia, and had set up about 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, according to Tunisian officials and migrant workers escaping the violence there.

Mohammed Siyam, 24, an Egyptian laborer who arrived at the Tunisian border Sunday morning after fleeing the fighting in Sabratha, said: "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."

Attempts to ship in aid to opposition-controlled towns near the Tunisian border were being thwarted by Libyan officials. Though aid groups have been in negotiations for several days about sending 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.

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