Rebels Hope for Qaddafi’s Fall but Remain Fearful

SHAHHAT, Libya — Opponents of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi held a former state radio station in this town on Wednesday, which they had renamed Free Libya and clearly intended to keep.

Stationed in front of the gate were burly guards with enormous machines guns and ammunition belts slung over their shoulders. Not far away, other armed men guarded an airport, and throughout the rebellious eastern half of this country, the protesters set up checkpoints and flew the old Libyan flag.

But at the radio station, Hamdi Zaidy, a former Libyan ambassador to Nigeria who has joined the antigovernment protesters, asked that any conversations about the state of the country be conducted outside of the building. “Qaddafi could bomb at any time,” said Mr. Zaidy, who was armed with a tiny Italian pistol.

One of the guards was actually a medical student. Mr. Zaidy said he was unsure whether the student knew how to use his machine gun.

Committed but ragtag, and with no weaponry to match a state’s power, Libya’s rebels anxiously awaited Colonel Qaddafi’s fall and hoped that their fellow citizens — and especially Colonel Qaddafi’s air force pilots — would join their side.

Though cities all along Libya’s eastern coast appeared to be controlled by Colonel Qaddafi’s opponents, supported by defecting soldiers and police officers, that control seemed tenuous and largely subject to the whims of the colonel’s feared militias and mercenaries, along with helicopters and fighter planes.

Alongside that fear was a determination to succeed, if only because for many of the protesters, failure to remove Colonel Qaddafi would mean death.

Others decided it was better to leave, and minivans filled with Egyptians streamed toward the border on Wednesday, past a cluster of people waiting for scarce cooking gas in Baida and past lines that formed at a gas station near the coastal town of Darnah.

Rumors circulated about the scale of the carnage in Tripoli, the capital, thought to number hundreds of deaths. Two people who spoke to relatives in Tripoli said the security forces had started staking out hospitals in order to arrest wounded protesters.

Mustafa Mohamed Abd al-Jalil, who recently quit his post as the justice minister and joined the protests, said different units of the security forces, led by three of Colonel Qaddafi’s sons, were still stationed around Tripoli.

Mr. Jalil, who was appointed to his post by one of the sons, Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, in 2007, said there were rumors of disagreements among the sons but no rift. He said that mercenaries had been arrested in eastern Libya, many of them coming from Chad and Niger, and that most of them had been hanged.

As he saw it, Colonel Qaddafi was teetering, and there was little chance he would survive. “If Tripoli falls, he will kill himself,” Mr. Jalil said. “Or the people close to him — maybe one of his sons — will kill him.”

In the meantime, Libyans focused their anger on the leader’s effigy, drawing Colonel Qaddafi as a clown in graffiti on a wall, or kicking a fallen poster of him at the La Abraq Airport, which had been the scene of a fierce battle last week. As the protesters told the story, a group of citizens traveled to the airport last week after hearing that mercenaries flown in by Colonel Qaddafi had arrived to put down the rebellion.

With eyes bruised from a beating and lacerations on his wrists, Rafaa Saad Younis said that he was among the group that went to the airport, but he said that he was taken hostage along with two dozen other people by a group of mercenaries and soldiers. He said the security forces killed people “in front of my eyes.”

Nothing set off both anger and talk of brutal revenge like the mercenaries. Cellphone videos were passed around among friends, showing black men, dead or being beaten.

Not far from the radio station, teenagers from Chad were among about 200 people detained in a school, people the government apparently sent to put down the uprising. Some said they belonged to the brigade supervised by Khamis Qaddafi, one of the colonel’s sons.

In one room, 76 men practically slept on top of one another, and one of them, Osman Ali, said they had come from the southern Libyan city of Sabha, which is loyal to Colonel Qaddafi. He said he and his fellow prisoners, along with hundreds of other people, were asked to attend a pro-Qaddafi rally in Tripoli last week, and then were put on a plane.

They were flown to Benghazi, he said, and were then sent to an army base that was surrounded by angry citizens. Mr. Ali said he and the other men never picked up weapons, but, he added, “We’re ashamed of what we did.”

It was no surprise that the revolt started here, in a part of Libya ignored by the government, said Mahmoud Mabrouk, whose niece was killed in last week’s violence. “It was a very oppressive regime, and this area was deprived,” said Mr. Mabrouk, who was visiting the Shahhat radio station. “If you go to Tripoli, you will see new projects and job opportunities for people.”

The reasons for the revolt were not all economic. The recent uprising started with an old memory: the police last week arrested a human rights lawyer representing the relatives of more than 1,000 detainees, mostly from eastern Libya, who were massacred in 1996 at a Tripoli prison.

Eastern Libya was also a center of resistance against the Italian occupation in the early 20th century, Mr. Mabrouk said. He mentioned Omar al-Mokhtar, who fought a guerrilla war against the Italians and was hanged in 1931.

With Colonel Qaddafi’s posters gone, Mr. Mokhtar’s face almost alone decorates the streets of eastern Libyan towns.


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