BENGHAZI, Libya — Rebel sympathizers, driven underground by a security clampdown in Tripoli, have resorted to furtive protests such as writing “No” next to pro-government wall graffiti and releasing balloons with rebel flags attached, according to two Libyans who have escaped the capital.
The two men spoke after reaching the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, offering a rare snapshot of anti-government resistance in the capital. Tripoli residents, fearing regime reprisals, are generally reluctant to speak to foreign reporters based there who can only move with government minders and are almost never allowed access to rebel sympathizers.
Rebels have seized eastern Libya, while Gadhafi clings to much of the rest of the country and is believed to be hunkering down in the capital, his main power base.
Government troops loyal to Gadhafi have stepped up pressure in the past two days near the port city of Misrata and a key western mountain range to try to block rebel fighters from advancing toward Tripoli, rebels said Tuesday. They said at least 11 people were killed in fighting that began late Monday and continued the next day.
Libyan government troops have been unable to retake two main rebel strongholds in the Gadhafi-controlled west — Misrata and several towns in the Nafusa mountain range. The rebels have been trying to break out of these bridgeheads and advance toward Tripoli.
Gadhafi’s forces maintain a tight grip on the capital, said Abdulbaset Ouf, a chemical engineer in his 40s who arrived in Benghazi last week on a Red Cross ship from Tripoli, accompanied by his wife and three children.
“The atmosphere is one of fear and paranoia,” he said.
During the day, life in the streets appears almost normal, though fuel shortages have left motorists waiting as long as a week to fill up a gas tank, he said. He said he’s observed fights between drivers and troops at gas stations, and heard reports of people killed and wounded.
An Associated Press reporter in the capital has seen fuel lines hundreds of cars long. One queue packed with empty taxis and private cars curls from a highway ramp around a major traffic circle in the center of the city. Many gas stations in and around the city appear closed down altogether, with rubble or earthen beams blocking the entrances.
Omran Bukra, the newly appointed energy minister, last week said Libya is now producing just 20,000 barrels of oil per day, a tiny fraction of prewar output.
At night, opposition activists occasionally attack troops and try to snatch their weapons, Ouf said. Bursts of gunfire can be heard throughout the night in Tripoli, but government officials insist it is mainly supporters firing celebratory shots into the air.
Ahead of Friday noon prayers, security is extremely tight around mosques, traditionally a staging ground for protests in the Arab world. “People are not allowed to gather and only certain mosques are open,” Ouf said. “Only loyal imams are allowed to lead prayers and there’s always a large number of troops surrounding the mosques … and snipers on the roofs of every house in the neighborhood.”
Rebel sympathizers can’t protest openly or in large numbers. From time to time, they release balloons with rebel flags attached or scribble anti-government graffiti, Ouf said.
“Gadhafi’s people always paint it over,” he said. Protesters have resorted to writing “No” next to pro-Gadhafi wall slogans or marking them with a large “X” because it takes less time than to whitewash them and reduces the risk of being caught, he said.
Ouf said he hasn’t spoken to friends or neighbors about his political views, for fear of getting arrested. He said he was automatically considered suspect by regime loyalists because he is originally from Ajdabiya, a town in the rebel-held east. A security officer came to his home in Tripoli every day to question him, he said.
He and his family left Tripoli late last week, on a Red Cross vessel that carried more than 300 passengers from Tripoli to Benghazi.
Ibrahim al-Hadad, an army officer from Benghazi, was in Tripoli for training when the uprising erupted in February.
He said he and a friend were ordered to guard a post office against mob attack. Instead, he deserted on Feb. 25, leaving behind his weapon and jumping over a back wall. Al-Hadad said he hid in Tripoli for nearly four months, not far from Gadhafi’s main compound in the city.
He said he eventually obtained a passport, drove to the border with Tunisia in late June, flew to Egypt and then headed to Benghazi overland. He said he was stopped at checkpoints en route to the Tunisian border, but proceeded without problems.
In the latest round of clashes, fierce fighting was reported in the town of Dafniya, near Misrata, with seven rebels killed and 46 wounded, said anti-government activist Faraj Akwedeir. Gadhafi’s troops “tried to enter Misrata from several fronts but our fighters stopped them,” he said.
A nurse working with the aid group Doctors Without Borders who recently returned from Misrata said medical centers in the city lack the capacity to treat those in need. Meinie Nicolai said in an emailed statement that there are not enough nurses, midwives and other hospital staff because many had been foreign guest workers who have now left the country.
Government troops also fired rockets and mortars at the town of Kikla, southwest of Tripoli, said Abdel-Salam Othman of the Nafusa mountain military council. He said four people were killed and eight wounded in fighting there.
Gadhafi’s forces have entered schools and mosques in Kikla to hide weapons, he said. “They even raise our flags to deceive the NATO,” he added, referring to the rebels’ tricolor. Libya’s national flag is green.
The western towns of Zintan and Nalut have come under attack as well, Othman said. “Gadhafi forces failed to advance but they keep putting pressure to stop us,” he added.
Over the past few weeks, rebel fighters have gathered on the outskirts of the town of Bair al-Ghanam, some 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Tripoli. Control over Bair al-Ghanam would open the road to the capital.
“We are consolidating force there and we are waiting for the people in Bair al-Ghanam to ensure us that they are not going to open their houses to Gadhafi troops,” Othman said.
NATO has been carrying out airstrikes against Gadhafi-linked military targets since March. It is joined by a number of Arab allies, including the wealthy Gulf states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Source: Associated Press (via AJC)