Tripoli braces for bloody battle

Tensions rise in Libya as clashes between government supporters and protesters turn increasingly violent.

Egyptian workers wait for evacuation from Tunisia. Unrest in Libya sent waves of migrants seeking safety into Tunisia. 25/02/2011. (© Lindsay Mackenzie).
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Some poor neighbourhoods of the Libyan capital of Tripoli openly defied Muammar Qaddafi yesterday as his grip on power after 41 years of rule looked increasingly tenuous.

Security forces have abandoned the capital's working-class Tajoura district after five days of demonstrations and significant fighting in the area, said local residents, who have erected makeshift barricades of rocks, palm trees and old television sets across rubbish-strewn streets to ward off gangs of roaming pro-government gunmen.

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Troops opened fire on demonstrators who tried to march from Tajoura to central Green Square overnight yesterday, killing at least five people, they said. The number could not be confirmed.

Several thousand people attended the funeral of one of the dead from Friday night's shooting, which quickly turned into another demonstration.

People across the capital say they are now bracing for bloody battles after an offer by the regime to arm supporters, allowing them to set up checkpoints and roving patrols around the Libyan capital to control movement and quash dissent.

Col Qaddafi's son, Seif al Islam, said yesterday in a media interview that protesters are being manipulated and the situation had "opened the doors to a civil war". "Our Arab brothers pay monthly salaries to journalists and tell them to write and incite against Libya, write against Muammar Qaddafi," he told Al-Arabiya television, the Dubai-based television channel.

He said people in "three-quarters of the country are living in peace" and "the situation is excellent". He denied African mercenaries had been recruited. "Show us the mercenaries, show us the women and children who were killed," he said.

State television in Libya said the government was raising wages and food subsidies and ordering special allowances for all families, a late bid to enrol the support of the country's six million citizens. Protesters hold a long sweep of about half of Libya's 1,600km Mediterranean coastline where most of the population lives.

Unconfirmed reports cited by The New York Times said an armed force of about 2,000 anti-government militiamen - including army defectors - was approaching the capital.

The UN Security Council planned to meet later yesterday for a second day to consider an arms embargo against the Libyan government and a travel ban and asset freeze against Col Qaddafi, his relatives and key members of his government.

Libya's ambassador to the UN, a childhood friend of Col Qaddafi, delivered an emotional speech to the Security Council in the first session, raising the spectre of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, asking for his country to be saved.

As foreigners continued to flee the chaos roiling the North African nation, Col Qaddafi's strongest European ally, the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, said that Libyan leader may no longer be in control.

In Tripoli, most residents stayed in their homes, terrified of bands of armed men running checkpoints and patrolling the city.

A 40-year-old business owner said he had seen Qaddafi supporters enter one of the regime's Revolutionary Committee headquarters yesterday and leave with arms. He said the regime is offering a car and money to any supporters bringing three people with them to join the effort.

"Someone from the old revolutionary committees will go with them, so they'll be four," the witness said when reached by telephone from Cairo. "They'll arm them to drive around the city and terrorise people."

Other residents reported seeing lorries full of civilians with automatic rifles patrolling their neighbourhoods. Many were young, even teenagers, and wore green arm bands or cloths on their heads to show their affiliation to the regime, residents said. All spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

In Tripoli's Green Square, where state television has shown crowds of Qaddafi supporters in recent days, armed security men in blue uniforms were stationed around the plaza. Pro-Qadhafi billboards and posters were everywhere. A burned restaurant was the only sign of the unrest.

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* Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters