In Libya, Gaddafi forces recapture strategic western town
Friday, March 11, 2011; 9:51 PM
ZAWIYAH, LIBYA - In the battle-scarred center of this small town, evidence abounds that the popular uprising here has been brutally crushed, in a bitter blow to the fast-fading hopes of rebels that they can succeed in toppling Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi.
The fall of Zawiyah, 30 miles west of Tripoli and the only major town in western Libya to have been claimed by the opposition, came as President Obama and the European Union offered only measured support for the rebels, leaving them increasingly vulnerable to Gaddafi's better organized and better equipped military.
Government officials escorted journalists to Zawiyah's main square, the focus of the fighting, for what amounted to a victory rally, with soldiers firing machine guns into the air and a crowd of about 200 enthusiastically chanting pro-Gaddafi slogans. But devastation lay all around.
The dome and the minaret of the mosque, which rebels turned into their headquarters and used as a makeshift hospital, have been blown away. Gaping holes in scorched and gutted apartment buildings and offices offered testimony to the artillery used to pound the rebels into submission. Broken glass and rubble lay strewn across the sidewalk, and mangled lampposts and street signs blocked roads.
There were indications of efforts to airbrush the 17-day history of rebel control of the town ahead of the journalists' visit. Two of the worst-hit buildings had been draped in giant lengths of green-and-white fabric. Anti-Gaddafi graffiti had been painted over, a colossal image on a wall of the pre-Gaddafi Libyan flag, which has become the symbol of the revolt, was whitewashed and a mountain of burned-out vehicles was out of sight behind the mosque.
An impromptu graveyard, in the park in the center of the square, was leveled and smoothed over with sand bearing the fresh marks of bulldozer tracks. Witnesses said the graves of at least seven fighters had been there until the previous day.
"No, it was a fountain," said a Gaddafi supporter, disputing questions about what had happened to the graves.
Journalists were not allowed to venture beyond the square, but on the drive through Zawiyah, the streets were deserted, raising questions as to the whereabouts of the rest of the town's estimated population of 200,000. Only a few dozen ordinary citizens joined the celebration, and they expressed relief that the battle was over.
"We were so scared, we couldn't go out and we were threatened by weapons," said Muftah bin Amal, 54, who took his three daughters to the square. "Now we are happy, and we pray God will protect our country."
Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim later told journalists that the remainder of the residents were "in their homes, in their houses," and said journalists were welcome to visit them. He said a total of 40 people from both sides had died in the fighting, although some reports have put that toll higher.
But with government media handlers supervising the event, and so few of Zawiyah's residents attending the celebration, it was hard to gauge the real mood now that the town is back in government hands, more than two weeks after it was claimed by anti-government protesters who later acquired weapons, including tanks and antiaircraft guns, from defecting soldiers.
One man stepped forward as the journalists were boarding buses for the return journey to express a concern that may resonate among many residents in the government-controlled west. "Yes, we have some problems, yes, we have some corruption," he said. "But we don't want Libya to be divided. We want Libya to be one."