Rebels encroach, but Tripoli seems unruffled

Rebels may have fought their way into Zawiyah, a strategic city a half hour’s drive from the Libyan capital, but for many supporters of Muammar Gaddafi here the battle that may be a turning point may as well be a million miles away.

Months of military stalemate appeared to come to an abrupt end in recent days, as rebels seeking to end Gaddafi’s 41-year-rule said they reached the center of Zawiyah, 50km west of Tripoli, and captured a town to Tripoli’s south.

While government officials downplayed the developments, and promised to reverse any gains rebels may have made, Gaddafi’s power base in Tripoli is now encircled. Yet few signs were visible in central Tripoli on Monday of apprehension.

There was no mass exit from the city or rush to stockpile goods in case of a long siege, a sign perhaps of the fact that many residents here have been bracing for the worst since the conflict erupted in February—or that residents of a surrounded city have few places to go.

Instead, the mood was relaxed and even festive around Tripoli’s main square as families strolled following the day-long fast and men smoked water pipes at outdoor cafés.

Makhjoub Muftah, a school teacher who has signed up as a gun-toting pro-Gaddafi volunteer, like many others seemed to think a rebel advance into Tripoli was a remote possibility.

“I wish they would march into Tripoli. I wish,” he said, daring the rebels.
“They will all die.”

Better armed troops
If rebels can push east from Zawiyah or north from the town of Garyan, they are likely to face fierce resistance from Gaddafi’s better-armed troops.

Supporters in Tripoli, most of whom have been supplied with weaponry, vow to defend Tripoli from rebels Gaddafi labels as mere thugs.

The 69-year-old leader made his first radio address early on Monday since the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan early on Monday, offering typically defiant words and urging Libyans to fight to the end.

But much of state television’s broadcast of speech was inaudible and the remainder was garbled and difficult to understand, even for government officials who puzzled over Gaddafi’s words after he spoke.

“The end of colonialism is near; the end of the rats [rebels] is near, as they flee from house to house,” Gaddafi said according to a transcript of the speech provided later by the state news agency.

Rumours, suspicion
While Tripoli has been plagued in recent weeks by severe power and petrol shortages, the city has not risen up in revolt against the government.

Most Libyans interviewed by foreign journalists, accompanied at all times by government minders, appear to place blame for their eroding quality of life squarely on Nato’s campaign of airstrikes and the rebels it is backing.

Libya’s prime minister has acknowledged limited protests in Tripoli due to faltering public services, but has insisted such complaints do not reflect discontent with the government.

Across central Tripoli, life appeared to march on normally on a balmy summer night. People shopped for baby clothes; men lounged in the grass. Amusement park rides lit up a stretch of the city’s seaside promenade while street vendors sold cigarettes and popcorn.

In tightly controlled Tripoli, it is difficult to know what sort of information ordinary residents have about the conflict. State television has disputed advances by the rebels and has given ample air time to people whose claims about government military victories are quickly knocked down.

While virtually no Tripoli residents have internet access, most have satellite television where they can watch pan-Arab media such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya.

“I don’t trust what I see on those channels,” said Ali Ramadan, a government employee, echoing a common refrain in a city that is deeply suspicious of foreigners. “I am sure the government will be victorious soon.”

Still, an undercurrent of tension is evident.

Abdul Rahim Mohammed Tarhouni (20) said there had been rumors that rebels would rape women in Tripoli. “Of course we are scared. Of course we are thinking of leaving,” he said on Sunday.

While some families have fled south, Tripoli residents say most are staying put. Instead, they say, there has been an influx of refugees from towns and villages where rebels and Gaddafi troops have clashed. Those people, regardless of their political inclinations, are seeking safety.

Not only Tripoli natives have a stake in what the city’s fate holds in coming days and weeks. While many of Libya’s foreign workers streamed out of the country when the conflict began, others with deep roots and steady work in Libya have remained, including tens of thousands of Palestinians.

Fadhel Assayed Nasr, originally from Gaza, said he was worried rumors that Palestinian mercenaries were fighting for Gaddafi would trigger retribution from rebels if they were to gain power.

He and other Palestinians, mindful of their compatriots’ misfortune in post-Saddam Iraq, fear they will fare poorly if Gaddafi disappears.

But he, like others here, appeared at least for now to believe the rebels will be kept at bay. “Tripoli is very well protected,” he said. “We have the army and armed people all around.” - Reuters

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