Witness: Broken, Zawiyah back in Gaddafi hands

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 9:58 AM
Witness: Broken, Zawiyah back in Gaddafi hands

By Maria Golovnina

ZAWIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - A grimy heap of sand is all that remains of a makeshift graveyard where Libyan rebels buried their dead during a two-week fight with government troops in Zawiyah.

Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi recaptured the western city on Thursday after pounding it with artillery fire for several days.

Bands of fist-pumping Gaddafi supporters and militiamen greeted a group of foreign journalists who were taken to Zawiyah by the government on Friday to showcase its victory.

The cemetery has been razed. Bulldozer tracks could be clearly seen on the plot of land which contained about 20 graves when Reuters visited the city on March 5.

Much of Zawiyah's city center was now gutted and burned.

Gaping holes blown by tank rounds and rockets peppered many buildings around the central Martyrs Square. Their smashed facades were decorated with Gaddafi portraits.

Nearby, the shattered minaret of a central mosque towered high above the devastated square. Opposition tricolor Libyan flags that adorned many buildings just days ago were gone.

A few hundred Gaddafi supporters appeared oblivious to the destruction. They waved flags around the flattened grave and shouted slogans in front of television cameras as official escorts looked on. Many shouted: "I love Gaddafi" in English.

Gaddafi militiamen danced on pick-up trucks and shot automatic rounds into the air. Women holding Gaddafi portraits danced. Songs praising Gaddafi blared from car windows.

Asked about what happened to the graves, one man shrugged and carried on chanting.

REBEL HOLDOUT

A city on the Mediterranean 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, Zawiyah was one of only two big towns in Gaddafi's stronghold of western Libya where rebels openly defied his rule.

The government prevented journalists from visiting Zawiyah while it fought for its control. Most of those who tried to enter it without an official escort were arrested.

Libyan officials say the rebels are gangsters and al Qaeda operatives. Rebels Reuters spoke to on the previous visit to Zawiyah said they were fighting for freedom and civil rights.

A hotel that served as the rebel command center stood burned out, now guarded by Gaddafi militiamen and adorned with a big portrait of Gaddafi in military uniform.

It had been a beehive of activity where rebel commanders held frantic meetings to plan their defense strategy.

"There were bad guys inside. There were 35-40 guys there yesterday with Kalashnikovs and big guns," said Waleed, one militiaman, pointing toward the building's ruined facade.

"We cannot live without Gaddafi. He is the king of Africa, not just Libya."

When asked about the fate of the rebels, another soldier standing nearby made a throat-cutting gesture and laughed.

Graffiti saying "Gaddafi out" had been painted over.

Giant strips of green and white cloth were draped over ruined house fronts. Tree trunks were charred and burned-out husks of cars littered nearby streets.

Journalists who tried to leave the central square in order to speak to ordinary residents were stopped.

Outside the fortified area, Zawiyah was a ghost of its former self. Smashed shop fronts lined empty streets and residential buildings looked abandoned.

"I am so happy. I hope Gaddafi wins. We won," said Ibrahim, his green bandana indicating his loyalty to Gaddafi. A small boy nearby shook his plastic rifle and smiled.

(Writing by Maria Golovnina, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)