In Libya, Gaddafi forces recapture strategic western town

By Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
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."

The collapse of the rebel effort in Zawiyah marks a major setback for opposition hopes that the revolt against Gaddafi will take root around the country. It also appeared to deepen the divide between the rebel-held east and the rest of the country.

With the only major rebel-held town in western Libya back under government control, the rebels are now concentrated almost exclusively in the far east, apart from a pocket of territory in the center of the town of Misurata, 125 miles east of Tripoli.

There were indications that the opposition movement in Tripoli also has withered, a little over three weeks after the start of the uprising, when thousands of people took to the streets and set fire to buildings in an effort to topple Gaddafi.

Friday prayers have been the focus of protests every week since, but on this Friday there were reports of only one attempt by a small number of demonstrators to take to the streets, in the distant eastern Tripoli suburb of Tajura. But they were swiftly scattered by security forces firing tear gas, a witness told Reuters.

As has also become customary on Fridays, media handlers prevented journalists from leaving their hotel in Tripoli, making it impossible to report on possible protests. Those who did manage to sneak out were rounded up and returned to the hotel or detained by police.

A 21-year-old Tripoli resident who has taken part in demonstrations since the uprising began said she decided to stay home Friday. "Today no one went out to protest," she said in a telephone interview. Because past demonstrations have been quelled by live ammunition and tear gas, "the people I know are concerned and are at home."

In eastern Libya, fighting continued around Ras Lanuf, home to Libya's biggest oil refinery, with both sides claiming to control the strategic town. Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, told journalists that the government has seized Ras Lanuf from the rebels and promised to take journalists there Saturday to see for themselves.

But a spokesman for the rebel movement, Hamid al-Hasi, told the al-Arabiya television network that Ras Lanuf was back in rebel hands.

There were also reports of air and artillery strikes against Brega, farther east, as government forces sought to press their counteroffensive deeper toward Benghazi, the self-styled capital of the rebel-held east.

There, thousands of residents gathered in front of the city's courthouse for Friday prayers, where they sent a collective plea to the world for assistance to take on Gaddafi's better-equipped forces. Banners were strung between lampposts, written in both English and Arabic.

"No Fly Zone" read one.

"Help us become a democratic country," read another.

Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan in Benghazi, Libya, and special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Ras Jdir, Tunisia, contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company