Loyalist Forces Open Fire on Tripoli Protesters

Friday, 04 March 2011 08:53 By David D Kirkpatrick, The New York Times News Service | Report | name.

Loyalist Forces Open Fire on Tripoli Protesters
An oil tanker truck overturned and caught fire on an overpass in Tripoli, Libya, on March 2, 2011. (Photo: Moises Saman / The New York Times)

Tripoli, Libya - Forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi opened fired with tear gas and what a witness described as live ammunition to scatter protesters who had gathered after Friday noon prayers outside a mosque in a restive neighborhood of Tripoli, chanting slogans and defying the authorities’ attempt to lock down the capital.

Young demonstrators hurled rocks at the militia forces cruising the Tajura neighborhood in blue trucks, but the crackle of fire from what sounded like automatic weapons panicked the protesters and they fled in several directions.

“Everyone was supposed to retreat to the mosque but they are scared of the killing because they are using bullets,” a doctor in the main Tajura mosque said as some protesters scrambled for cover there. Two people were injured, he said. Witnesses said the militia fired AK-47 assault rifles.

Witnesses in Zawiya, 25 miles west of Tripoli, said in telephone interviews that unarmed civilian protesters chanting slogans against the Libyan leader came under fire from pro-Qaddafi forces who caught the demonstrators in a pincer movement. One witness, who spoke in return for anonymity because of a fear of being singled out for reprisals, said five people had been killed. “Their bodies are on the ground, but nobody is able to approach them,” the witness said. There was no independent corroboration of that death toll.

Another witness called the shooting in Zawiya a massacre. “I cannot describe the enormity of the violence they are committing against us,” he said by telephone, with bursts of gunfire audible in the background. “We want our country to be free.”

Initially, worshippers in Tajura said they planned to display their opposition to Colonel Qaddafi from inside the mosque, staging a sit-in after the noon prayers that have become a flashpoint for demonstrations in the uprisings spreading across the Arab world.

But, as prayers ended, thousands of protesters — mainly men — lofted the pre-Qaddafi flag that has become the emblem of the rebellion and began milling in a courtyard outside, shouting slogans such as “Free, free Libya,” “Tajura will bury you” and “The people want to bring down the regime” — a rallying cry in many parts of the Arab world. The mosque had been packed and many more people prayed in a courtyard outside.

The protest soon thinned out, reflecting a pervasive fear of reprisals, and only several hundred demonstrators remained, keeping close to the mosque itself. But as they chanted slogans, the pro-Qaddafi militia arrived to disperse them and they broke up into several groups.

Before the Friday noon prayers, witnesses in some neighborhoods of Tripoli said roadblocks backed by armored vehicles and tanks had been set up while official minders ordered foreign journalists not to leave the hotel where they have been told to stay by the authorities.

The government’s measures came against the backdrop of a state of terror that has seized two working-class neighborhoods here that just a week ago exploded in revolt. Residents on Thursday reported constant surveillance, searches of cars and even cellphones by militiamen with Kalashnikovs at block-by-block checkpoints and a rash of disappearances of those involved in last week’s protest. Some said secret policemen had been offering money for information about the identities and whereabouts of anti-Qaddafi protesters.

As rebel fighters in the country’s east celebrated their defeat of a raid on Wednesday by hundreds of Colonel Qaddafi’s loyalists in the strategic oil town of Brega, many people in Tripoli said they had lost hope that peaceful protests might push the Libyan leader from power the way street demonstrations had toppled the strongmen in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.

The measures against foreign reporters reflected a deep animosity despite the government’s decision to invite 130 journalists to Tripoli. In a rambling, three-hour speech to loyalists on Wednesday, Colonel Qaddafi said: “Libya doesn’t like foreign correspondents. They shouldn’t even know about the weather forecasts in Libya, because we are suspicious.”

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Even in what pass for normal times, Libya severely restricts visas for foreign reporters, issuing them only when the authorities wish to mark some important event offering tribute to Colonel Qaddafi.

But some protesters on Friday said they had been emboldened by the presence of foreign camera crews and journalists who eluded the authorities’ attempt to pen them in. But the pro-Qaddafi militia opened fire even though British television crews were filming the episode.

“We are brave, huh?” a protester had said without offering his name. “If Qaddafi brings weapons we will die. But we are confident in ourselves and our cause.”

Worshippers said rebel leaders in Benghazi, the eastern stronghold of the uprising, had sent word urging protesters to remain inside mosques for sit-ins after noon prayers, but that instruction seemed to have been ignored in Tajura, at least.

Referring to an interview in which Colonel Qaddafi said all Libyans loved him, a worshipper said the aim of the sit-ins was “to show the number of people who hate Qaddafi.” A resident of Tajura reached by telephone said one slogan on Friday declared: “You say we love you, but we don’t.”

The demonstrations on Friday demonstrated just how effectively the government’s ruthless application of force in Tripoli has locked down the city and suppressed simmering rage, even as the rebels have held control of the eastern half of the country and a string of smaller western cities surrounding the capital.

“I think the people know that if they make any protest now they will be killed, so all the people in Tripoli are waiting for someone to help them,” one resident said. “It is easy to kill anybody here. I have seen it with my own eyes.”

Several people in the two neighborhoods, Feshloom and Tajura, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of Colonel Qaddafi’s secret police, said militias loyal to the colonel were using photos taken at last week’s protest to track down the men involved. “They know that there are people who have energy and who are willing to die, so they pick them up,” another resident said.

Residents of Feshloom showed reporters cellphone photographs taken at Tripoli Central Hospital of a large wound in the chest of a neighbor, Nagi Ali el-Nafishi, 56, and they pointed out a bloodstain on the concrete where he had been shot after leaving a mosque last Friday. A doctor who examined him told reporters that the bullet had exploded his heart and lungs, causing him to die of blood loss within minutes.

Several residents said at least four people from their neighborhood had been killed that day, including Hisham el-Trabelsi, 19, who they said was shot in the head, and Abdel Basit Ismail, 25, who they said was hit by random gunfire while she was calling to a relative involved in the protest.

They also reported the discovery of the body of at least one man, Salem Bashir al-Osta, a 37-year-old teacher who disappeared at a protest last Sunday. It was found near the Abu Slim prison, showing signs of a severe beating but no bullet holes.

And in both neighborhoods, both hotbeds of resistance, residents say disappearances have continued all week as the security forces appear to be rounding up suspected protesters in anticipation of Friday Prayer services, the customary gathering time for street protests across the Arab world.

As Colonel Qaddafi tightened his grip on Tripoli, there were indications that the conflict elsewhere was settling into a stalemate.

Flush with their victory in Brega, rebel fighters pushed 25 miles to the west and established a makeshift checkpoint. A dozen lightly armed men stood guard, greeting trucks filled with Egyptian migrant workers fleeing eastward toward home. At rebel checkpoints in the east and at the Tunisian border, many of the refugees have said that Colonel Qaddafi’s soldiers had robbed them, taking their phones and money.

President Obama on Thursday issued his strongest call yet for Colonel Qaddafi to step down, saying he had lost all his legitimacy as a leader and that “the entire world continues to be outraged by the appalling violence against the Libyan people.”

Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from Benghazi, Libya; Lynsey Addario from Agella, Libya; Neil MacFarquhar from Cairo; and Alan Cowell from Paris. 

This article "Loyalist Forces Open Fire on Tripoli Protesters" originally appeared at The New York Times.

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Last modified on Friday, 04 March 2011 15:45