Libya rebels repel attacks by Khadafy

Opposition makes stand near Tripoli; ruler blames drugs, bin Laden

A man sat in an armored vehicle in the eastern Libyan town of Shahat yesterday. A man sat in an armored vehicle in the eastern Libyan town of Shahat yesterday. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)
By Kareem Fahim and David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times / February 25, 2011

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BENGHAZI, Libya — Rebels seeking to overturn the 40-year rule of Colonel Moammar Khadafy repelled a concerted assault by his forces on cities close to the capital yesterday, removing any doubt that Libya’s patchwork of protests had evolved into an increasingly well-armed revolutionary movement.

The series of determined stands by rebel forces yesterday — especially in the strategic city of Zawiya, near important oil resources and 30 miles from the capital, Tripoli — presented the gravest threat yet to the Libyan leader. There, more than 100 people were killed as Khadafy’s forces turned automatic weapons on a mosque filled with rebels, a witness said. Still, residents rallied afterward to protest.

Khadafy’s evident frustration at the resistance in Zawiya spilled out in a rant by telephone over the state television network charging that Osama bin Laden had drugged the town’s youth into a rebellious frenzy.

Yesterday’s violence under scored the contrast between the character of Libya’s revolution and the uprising that toppled autocrats in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. Unlike those Facebook-enabled youth rebellions, the insurrection here has been led by people who are more mature and who have been actively opposing the regime for some time. It started with lawyers’ syndicates that have campaigned peacefully for two years for a written constitution and some semblance of a rule of law.

Fueled by popular anger, the help of breakaway leaders of the armed forces and some of their troops, and weapons from looted military stockpiles or smuggled across the border, the rebellion has escalated quickly and violently in little more than a week.

Fathi Terbil, 39, the human rights lawyer whose detention first ignited the protests, drew a map of rebel-held territory in striking distance of Tripoli.

“It is only a matter of days,’’ he said in the eastern city of Benghazi, where the revolt began.

A turning point in the uprising’s evolution was arguably the defection of the interior minister, Abdel Fattah Younes al-Abidi, an army general who had been a close ally of Khadafy.

The break by Abidi, who has family roots near the revolt’s eastern origins, encouraged other disaffected police, military and state security personnel to change sides as well.

“We are hoping to use his experience,’’ said Terbil, who some called the linchpin of the revolt.

Opposition figures in rebel-held cities like Benghazi have been appearing on cable news channels promising that opponents of Khadafy are heading toward Tripoli to bolster the resistance there. Their ability to carry out those assertions remains to be seen.

In parts of the country, the revolutionaries, as they call themselves, appear to have access to potentially large stores of weapons, including small arms and heavy artillery, automatic weapons smuggled from Egypt and rocket-propelled grenades taken from army bases, like the Kabila in Benghazi.

Tawfik al-Shohiby, one of the rebels, said that in the early days of the revolt, one of his relatives bought $75,000 in automatic weapons from arms dealers on the Egyptian border and distributed them to citizens’ groups.

So far, at least in the east, many of the weapons appear to be in storage to defend against a future attempt by Khadafy’s forces to retake the territory. At a former security services building in Benghazi yesterday, men in fatigues prepared to take antiaircraft and antitank weapons to what one said was a storage depot.

Like their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, the rebels in Libya have shown tech-savvy guile in circumventing government efforts to block their communication. To sidestep the government’s blocking of the Internet and curbing of cell phone access, for example, some of the more active anti-government protesters distribute flash drives and CDs with videos of the fighting to friends in other towns and to journalists.

Protesters in Tripoli were calling for a massive demonstration today after noon prayers, residents of the city and those fleeing the country said. In recent days, witnesses said, Khadafy appears to have pulled many of his militiamen and mercenaries back toward the capital for its defense.

But despite the encroaching insurrection, Khadafy appeared determined yesterday to put on a show of strength and national unity, a stark turnabout from his approach so far.

But the rebels’ unexpected strength was undeniable as they appeared to hold or contest several towns close to Khadafy’s stronghold in Tripoli in the face of a coordinated push by his mercenaries and security forces.

In Misurata, 130 miles east of the capital, Khadafy’s forces struck at rebels guarding the airport with rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells, the Associated Press reported. But the rebels seized an antiaircraft gun used by the militias and turned it against them.

In Zuara, 75 miles west of the capital, the police and security forces had pulled out and a “people’s committee’’ was controlling the city, several people who had fled across the border reported.

“The people are taking care of their own business,’’ said Basem Shams, 26, a fisherman.

In Sabratha, 50 miles west of the capital, witnesses said the police headquarters and offices of Khadafy’s revolutionary committees were in smoldering ruins.

“We are not afraid; we are watching,’’ said a doctor by telephone from Sabratha. “What I am sure about, is that change is coming.’’

In Zawiya, an envoy from Khadafy had reportedly arrived to warn rebels Wednesday: “Either leave or you will see a massacre,’’ one resident said.

About 5 a.m. yesterday, Khadafy’s forces fulfilled the threat. Witnesses said a force that included about 60 foreign mercenaries assaulted a central mosque where some of the roughly 2,000 protesters had sought refuge. One witness said the protesters were armed mainly with rifles, sticks, and knives, but after four hours of fighting they managed to hold the square.

About 100 people were killed and 200 others wounded, this witness said. During a telephone interview with him, a voice could be heard over a loudspeaker in the background telling the crowd, in an area known as Martyrs Square, not to be afraid.

“People came to send a clear message: We are not afraid of death or your bullets,’’ one resident told the AP “This regime will regret it. History will not forgive them.’’

The violence sowed concern across the region and beyond. President Obama spoke yesterday, in separate calls, with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and the prime ministers of Britain and Italy, David Cameron and Silvio Berlusconi.

The White House said the leaders expressed “deep concern’’ over the Libyan government’s use of force and discussed responses, without specifying what steps they were prepared to take. top stories on Twitter

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