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Kadafi loses another city to Libyan opposition

A possible standoff shapes up as protesters with tanks and antiaircraft guns mass in Zawiya, the city just west of Tripoli that Moammar Kadafi's forces have surrounded with armor and military checkpoints.

February 28, 2011|By David Zucchino, Raja Abdulrahim and Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times
  • Libyan anti-government protesters chant slogans during a protest against Moammar Kadafi in Zawiya.
Libyan anti-government protesters chant slogans during a protest against… (AFP / Getty Images )

Reporting from Benghazi, Libya, and Cairo — Moammar Kadafi's tenuous grip on Libya was further loosened when the city closest to the capital fell under the control of rebel forces, leaving Tripoli encircled by opponents determined to topple the dictator's 41-year regime.

Zawiya, a city of 210,000 just 30 miles west of Tripoli, was shaping up to be a potential focal point for clashes as anti-government forces with tanks and antiaircraft guns massed throughout the city center Sunday, and Kadafi forces surrounded the outskirts with tanks and military checkpoints, residents said.

From the east, small bands of armed men traveled in the direction of the capital from Benghazi, the city that gave birth to the 11-day uprising.

"This standoff may drag on for some time, and it may become much, much uglier," said Paul Sullivan, a regional expert at Georgetown University who has studied Libya for years. "The international community is going to continue to be placed in a very difficult position."

The developments in Libya occurred as the wave of unrest continued Sunday throughout North Africa and the Middle East, enveloping the usually sleepy gulf sultanate of Oman, where government forces were blamed for at least two protesters' deaths.

The world's focus, however, remained on Libya as military and civilian leaders in Benghazi, the rebel capital, said they had no immediate plans to send large groups of fighters to Tripoli to assist other rebels besieging the capital. Instead, individual fighters have gone on their own.

Khaled ben Ali, an organizer of the provisional government in Benghazi where the eastern uprising against Kadafi erupted Feb. 17, said a total of about 300 men are traveling in small groups in private cars, with little or no coordination among them or with protesters in Tripoli.

At a Benghazi army barracks, rebels collected weapons — including antiaircraft guns and Kalashnikov rifles — taken from Kadafi loyalists. There was continuous talk about going to Tripoli, but no serious effort has been mobilized, air force Col. Ahmed Omar said.

"Our bodies are here, but our hearts are in Tripoli," he said. "We are thinking, the idea has been there since the first day Benghazi was liberated, trying to get to Tripoli."

A few men phoned the provisional government center in Benghazi's central courthouse Sunday to report that they had arrived on the eastern outskirts of Tripoli, Ben Ali said. But the vast majority of men have not been heard from since leaving Benghazi over the last several days, other officials said.

Most of the fighters are impassioned young men eager to play a role in deposing Kadafi. A few are soldiers who defected from Kadafi's army, Ben Ali said, adding that leaders of the rebellion don't fully trust them.

On Saturday, he said, an army general contacted opposition fighters in the coastal city of Misurata, about 120 miles east of Tripoli. The general claimed to be defecting from the Kadafi regime but arrived with loyalist soldiers and killed several opposition fighters, Ben Ali said.

Inside Tripoli, the situation was grim. Two-hour lines awaited people seeking bread or fuel. Official forces melted away to be replaced by young men or teenagers who were armed by Kadafi, giving the city a sense of wild unpredictability.

"The city is controlled by these mad dogs. They make it absolutely impossible to enunciate any view against the government," a sobbing 62-year-old businessman said by phone.

Yet no one expected Kadafi to fall easily. He gave a rambling interview to Serbian television vowing to fight on, and son Seif Islam continued his appearances on state broadcasts to assert that the government was regaining control.

The Kadafi government attempted to appease the uprising with an announcement on state television Sunday that $400 grants would be distributed to each Libyan family as part of the "beginning of the redistribution of oil wealth to Libyans." But long lines of people at the banks were turned away, residents said.

Efforts by foreign governments inside Libya were isolated and aimed at bringing relief to their own citizens.

Germany said it performed secret rescues, when planes fetched more than 100 people from a private runway, its foreign minister announced Sunday. The British said they again used three aircraft at multiple locations in the eastern Libyan desert to spirit away another 150 Britons. A similar, earlier operation was also successful.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said during an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the American government should provide "the so-called provisional government, and there will be one, with the equipment and materiel that they could use." Such action, he said, "would be a very strong signal."

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