Fear haunts Libyan capital as protest planned

AP News
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Posted: Mar 03, 2011 3:46 PM
Fear haunts Libyan capital as protest planned

The mourning tent was set up in Tripoli's Fashloum neighborhood Thursday to receive grieving friends and neighbors of a 56-year-old man shot to death by Moammar Gadhafi's militiamen a week ago. No one dared show up. Paying condolences to a slain protester is dangerous in the Libyan capital.

A wave of arrests, killings and disappearances has terrorized Tripoli in a deadly crackdown by Gadhafi's regime as his opponents try to organize new protests Friday.

Bodies of people who vanished have been dumped in the street. Gunmen in SUVs have descended on homes in the night to drag away suspected protesters, identified by video footage of protests that militiamen have pored through to spot faces. Other militiamen have searched hospitals for wounded to take away.

Residents say they are under the watchful eyes of a variety of Gadhafi militias prowling the streets. They go under numerous names _ Internal Security, the Central Support Force, the People's Force, the People's Guards and the Brigade of Mohammed al-Magarif, the head of Gadhafi's personal guard _ and they are all searching for suspected protesters.

"While you are speaking to me now, there are spies everywhere and people watching me and you," one man said, cutting short a conversation with an Associated Press reporter visiting the Tripoli district of Zawiyat al-Dahman on Thursday.

Residents said calls for new protests to be held Friday after weekly Muslim prayers were being passed by word of mouth in several districts of the capital.

Whether crowds turn out will depend on the depth of fear among Gadhafi opponents. Friday could prove a test of the extent of Gadhafi's control. The capital is crucial to the Libyan leader, his strongest remaining bastion after the uprising that began on Feb. 15 broke the entire eastern half of Libya out of his control and even swept over some cities in the west near Tripoli.

The clampdown in Tripoli has left some yearning for outside help. One 21-year-old in Zawiyat al-Dahman said residents were hoping for manpower to come from the opposition-held east. A Libyan writer in his 70s said he rejects "foreign intervention" in Libya's upheaval _ but wouldn't mind a "a powerful strike" on Gadhafi's headquarters to stop further bloodshed.

"There must be some sort of action as soon as possible. Time is running and Libyans can't wait any longer," the writer said.

He, like other residents, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear they too would be hunted down.

Last Friday, the residents of Fashloum, Tajoura and Souq al-Jomaa witnessed the price anti-Gadhafi protesters pay, when militiamen opened fire on demonstrators.

In Fashloum, worshippers emerged from the Al-Baz mosque and young men in the crowd began to march and chant, "Freedom to Libya." Within moments, the barrage of gunfire from militiamen erupted, said a brother of the slain 56-year-old protester.

"My brother was hit with a bullet right in the heart. In minutes he lost all his blood," he said, showing a mobile phone video clip of his brother's body, with a hole in the chest.

While rushing to Tripoli's central hospital, he found militia stationed in front of the building.

"Doctors at the hospital told me that they are taking the injured to underground rooms inside the hospital away from the militia," said the brother, who is a doctor himself.

"During the burial, the militia was also there watching us," he added.

The number of deaths across Tripoli last Friday is not confirmed. The brother gave the names of six people from Fashloum who were killed. He said other bodies of slain protesters that day were seen being loaded into cars by militiamen and have not been seen since. He said he knows families who are still searching for bodies of their loved ones.

Others were arrested later on. The brother said he knows a 37-year-old man who disappeared for several days afterward. Then his body was dumped in a street in Tripoli's Abu Selim district.

In nearby Zawiyat al-Dahman, a similar protest came last Friday came under a shower of bullets. One man on Thursday pointed to a building where he said a young woman was shot dead while standing on her balcony.

"All people hate Gadhafi. This is a fact. But if anyone steps out, he is dead," he said.

In an upper-class street of the same neighborhood, a cafe owners said Tripoli residents are torn _ they want change but also want safety.

"What I know for sure is that it is getting worse. What we are in right now is worse than what we had before. I don't know what will the future look like," he said. "The price people pay for change is very dear."

In the embattled neighborhood of Tajoura, a 31-year old protester showed the AP the houses of his two brothers, who were rounded up in a 3 a.m. raid on Wednesday.

He was on the roof of a nearby building, counting the militia vehicles: 15 white pickup trucks with People's Guards license plates and two 4x4 Toyotas screeched up to the adjacent houses in a narrow, unpaved alley. They cordoned off the buildings, militiamen leaped over the buildings' fences, froze the door locks off with a compressed substance in cans and broke in. They drove off with his 32- and 35-year-old brothers, whose whereabouts remains unknown, the protester said.

They were among 20 protesters rounded up in Tajoura at that same time, according to various residents.

"They call Tajoura 'the terrorist neighborhood' because we dared to call for ousting Gadhafi," the protester said.

In the home of one of the arrested men, clothes were left scattered around the living room, drawers were open and the TV was still on. The door was intact, but its lock was knocked out. In the bedroom, the mattress was overturned. The protester said money, jewelry and four mobile phones were also taken. Other young men from the family had already been arrested days earlier, he said.

Except for the barking dogs, the house was empty and still.

"We moved their families away from here. There is no way they can stay after what happened," he said, adding that he and his fellow activists had also decided not to spend the night in their homes.

"This is the message to all Libyans: if you say you don't want Gadhafi, this is what will happen to you," he said.