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Some find their voice in Libya capital

Since the start of the Western-led bombing campaign against Libya's armed forces, government' opponents in Tripoli have been emboldened.

March 22, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — He woke up in a fright as the air raids and antiaircraft guns opened up over Tripoli. But when Abdul-Momen climbed to his rooftop to watch the tracer fire streaking the sky, it was not fear that filled his heart. It was hope.

Across the expanse of his neighborhood early Sunday morning, the young doctor could see others holding up their cellphone cameras to record history. And although they were too afraid of their neighbors to publicly cheer, neither were they cursing the West or chanting pro-government slogans.

"For the first time we finally have hope that our nightmare of 40 years will soon be over," Abdul-Momen said a few days into the bombing campaign. "I'm looking forward to seeing a free Libya without Moammar Kadafi."

With control of the broadcast media and the streets of Tripoli, the capital, Kadafi loyalists have for weeks intimidated their opponents, allowing only a message of almost giddy support for the leader to fill the public space. Even news of Japan's earthquake and tsunami was ignored.

But since the start of the Western-led bombing campaign against Libya's armed forces, the edifice of control has begun to crack. Except for a few spokespeople, Libyan officials have slipped away. Kadafi and his outspoken son, Seif Islam, who had been giving interviews nonstop to international news organizations, have largely disappeared.

Kadafi may still be able to hang on. He did take to the airwaves just before midnight Tuesday in what was described as a live appearance before supporters at his Bab Azizia compound. He vowed to be victorious. "The most powerful air defense is the people," he said. "Here are the people."

Many aren't buying it. The street value of the country's currency, equal to the official rate before the bombing started, has fallen 25%. Lines are forming at rationing centers distributing rice, tea, oil and barley, and at gas stations. Commercial activity, which had perked up after weeks of political unrest, has fallen off dramatically.

Most important, the government's opponents in Tripoli have been emboldened despite Kadafi's vow Sunday to arm all his supporters. Many perceived that as a tactic to further cow a protest movement here that his security forces crushed with brute force last month.

"It's a joke, he will never arm the people," said one university professor, who asked that his last name not be published for security reasons. "He knows that half of the people at least will immediately turn their guns against him."

Fueling the resentment is repressed anger over those killed and missing since the unrest began. For the first time in weeks, people are speaking up about atrocities committed during the protests that began just before the five-year anniversary of Feb. 17, 2006, protests in the eastern city of Benghazi in which security forces killed 16 people and injured 62.

One opposition activist said that nearly two dozen members of his Farjan tribe were killed in the Kadafi stronghold of Surt.

The doctor, Abdul-Momen, who also asked that his full name not be published, said that about 65 people were killed in one neighborhood alone in the Souk Jouma area of Tripoli. That number included 24 bodies brought to a polyclinic where he works.

"The first night, they could not find places in the hospital to put the bodies," said one activist.

Some families, one activist said, privately buried their dead in order not to arouse the attention of the authorities. "Libya has many untold stories," he said.

Kadafi loyalists continue to portray a government unbowed by the bombing campaign. On Tuesday, state television declared that Libyan citizens continued to "flock" to Kadafi's compound to support their leader.

"America will always be the loser," said one poet on state television. "The leader has God on his side, making him always victorious. Let America tighten its sanctions. The colonel rejects its imperialism."

The monotonous chants of "God, Moammar, Libya and that's it," still are repeated by Kadafi loyalists on television and in contrived street rallies.

But few people are attending those rallies, and alternative voices have begun to emerge and subtly challenge the government's contention that the rebels are a gang of Al Qaeda militants supported by the West in a plot to steal Libya's oil.

"This crisis has divided families," Yousef Iyad, a tribal leader, said at a tribal meeting that was broadcast live on state television. "These events have created a social disaster that we have not experienced in modern Libyan times. The scale of the events, the scale of the violence we have experienced, is unprecedented."

Nearly all the tribal leaders meeting at central Tripoli's Algeria Square inside an ornate hall with a large portrait of a much younger Kadafi peering from one end, avoided parroting the government's hard line on the rebellion. Instead, they announced plans to march across the country to reunite Libya's divided east and west.

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