Libyan desert town shakes off Gadhafi rule

AP News
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Posted: Mar 01, 2011 1:51 PM
Libyan desert town shakes off Gadhafi rule

The men, armed with handmade weapons, knives and automatic rifles, hunker down in an unfinished concrete building meant to one day be a hotel. They lie on mattresses, drink tea and take turns watching the long road to Tripoli for any sign of imminent attack.

The men at the impromptu hilltop post are the first line of defense for their remote town of 18,000 in Libya's northwestern desert, which shook off the rule of Moammar Gadhafi _ "Liberated Nalut," as the graffiti sprayed on walls in town proclaimed.

"The youth here lost hope in this country," said Mustafa, a 37-year-old civil servant among the men. "So when the uprising started, we took whatever arms we could find and we exploded _ we took our town back." He, like many others in the town spoke on condition their full names not be used for fear of retaliation.

The rebellion in Libya has been centered along the long Mediterranean coast where most of its population of 6 million live. Nearly the entire eastern half of the coast has broken away from Gadhafi's regime, leaving him in control of the seaside capital of Tripoli and nearby cities in the west.

But the uprising is also raging in this corner of Libya's sparsely populated desert hinterland, 140 miles (240 kilometers) southwest of Tripoli. An Associated Press reporter spent two days with the self-declared "revolutionaries" in Nalut, one of a string of "liberated" towns nestled in the Nafusa Mountains near the border with Tunisia.

The border crossing _ 40 miles (68 kilometers) from Nalut along a winding mountain road _ was briefly in the hands of anti-Gadhafi forces for several days. But military units loyal to Gadhafi moved in Monday and retook it.

That, and the presence of an army base only a short drive away to the north, raised fears in Nalut that the military was now moving on the town.

On Monday, residents worked furiously to erect what defenses they could. At the town entrance, they used a bulldozer to pile up a hill of dirt and rocks as a road barrier. Others dug trenches for defenders to take cover in.

Exhausted and their faces lined with fear, organizers at the town's former State Intelligence Service building _ now a community center _ made harried phone calls to sympathetic former army officers, trying to get information on the military's movements.

"We only have Kalashnikovs," one man screamed into the phone. "What do you think we can do with those?"

Farther east in the Nafusa mountain range, the military did strike Monday night, attacking the opposition-held town of Zintan. Troops in about 20 vehicles with heavy machine guns launched the assault but were repulsed by armed residents and allied army units, who captured one of the vehicles, said two residents of Zintan.

"We will not give it up no matter what forms of terrorism" Gadhafi uses, one man in Zintan said. "From now on, people will not accept anything less than freedom and a democratic state."

At least three other towns in the mountain range, which is dominated by members of Libya's ethnic Berber minority, have also been taken over by the opposition, said Nalut residents, who are in touch with their brethren.

Lying in a narrow, rugged valley on the range's western end, Nalut felt haunted. The green and white metal shutters of shops were closed tight and had been for days. Women and children stayed off the streets.

Government buildings and police stations stood charred after being set on fire by protesters Feb. 19, early in the uprising. Some army and police units in the town joined the rebels, while Gadhafi loyalists fled.

"The numbers (of protesters) were so great," said Shaaban Abu Sitta, a Nalut lawyer. The pro-Gadhafi forces "just ran away. They didn't want to fire at us but they fired in the air, and when they saw our size they just ran away. There were clashes with rock-throwing."

In the main square, a monument of the Green Book _ Gadhafi's political manifesto _ was demolished. Gadhafi had stood at the statue to make a speech only last summer during a visit. Now the square has been renamed Martyr's Square. Two men climbed a pole on top of the monument's rubble of the statue and raised the pre-Gadhafi-era flag of Libya's monarchy _ a red-black-and-green banner with a crescent and star that has become the symbol of the uprising.

Another, larger flag hung where a picture of Gadhafi has once smiled down on the people of Nalut.

The former Intelligence headquarters _ once the most dreaded building in town _ has been turned into a new town hall and community center. "The Nalut Family Center," read a sign outside.

Its entrance still reeked of burned plastic and metal from fires set by protesters. Folders with people's personal files lay half burned on the floor, and melted paint on walls sagged toward the floor.

But unburned rooms were cleaned up and turned into work spaces, a kitchen and bedrooms for residents now working security. In the building, a community council of local figures takes advice and ideas from town residents.

"We want wise choices to come out of this building now," said Ali Issa, a Muslim cleric who helps run the center. "Enough with the fear and oppression we are used to."

"The country is a mess, and our youth need stability, so we have taken it into our own hands and will organize for stability," Issa said.

Dozens lined up at a bakery, patiently waiting their turn for baguettes. A gas station opened for the first time in 10 days, and dozens of cars formed a long line down a main street waiting to fuel up. Men and their sons sat close to empty jerrycans, and a scuffle broke out as people pushed for their turn at a gas pump.

"Nalut sits on a lake of oil, and we have been reduced to lining up for petrol," Saleh Ibrahim, who had been waiting four hours to fill up, said in a reference to nearby oil deposits.

Over the weekend, all of Nalut's men gathered in the main square and prayed, reading the Fatiha _ the first verse of the Quran _ in preparation for death in battle, said Abu Sitta, the lawyer.

But by Tuesday, the dreaded army attack had so far not come.

Abu Sitta was feeling confident. Nalut's position in the mountains gives it protection, limiting the ways in for attackers, he said, and he boasted the rebels now have weapons that could shoot down a helicopter.

"The only way the army can take us over is if they send many units, huge numbers, which is impossible because right now the regime doesn't have that kind of numbers and they are all focused on Tripoli," he said.

Now Nalut's fighters were hoping for word from Benghazi _ the center of the opposition in the east _ so that "we and the other brothers in the west should start pushing forward to free Tripoli."

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AP correspondent Bassem Mroue in Cairo contributed to this report.