Qaddafi militias open fire on Tripoli protesters streaming out of Mosques

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Militiaman outside Tripoli Mosque

By Kareem Fahim and David D. Kirkpatrick
The New York Times

BENGHAZI, Libya — Clashes erupted in Tripoli on Friday as security forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi used gunfire in an attempt to disperse thousands of protesters who streamed out of mosques after prayers to mount their first major challenge to the government’s crackdown in the capital.

The protesters refused to back down, witnesses told news services and the opposition reported on websites, and clashes continued in parts of the city. The renewed violence came even as the government prepared to open Tripoli for the first time to foreign journalists to demonstrate what Colonel Qaddafi and his sons had described as a return normal life there. Some witnesses, in telephone interviews with news services, said that several people had been wounded and killed.

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The continuing crackdown came as international efforts to stem the bloodshed in Libya appeared to gain momentum on Friday, with the United Nations Security Council scheduled to meet to discuss a draft proposal for sanctions against Libyan leaders.

The antigovernment demonstrators had pledged to take to the streets of the capital on Friday despite threats of a violent crackdown by pro-government mercenaries and security forces, as Colonel Qaddafi attempted to maintain his grip on the city that remains one of his last strongholds in a widespread rebellion.

Before prayers had even begun, security personnel deployed around mosques to prevent demonstrations, witnesses said. In their sermons, prayer leaders followed a text that had been imposed by the authorities calling for a “return to stability” and an end to “sedition” and “acts of sabotage,” worshippers quoted by news services said.

“The situation is chaotic in parts of Tripoli now,” one resident told The Associated Press. Armed militiamen were speeding through the streets, he said. Residents hiding in their homes reported hearing gunfire around the city, according to The A.P.

The protesters appeared emboldened after rebels in nearby cities repelled a concerted assault by security forces on Thursday, as Libya’s patchwork of protests evolved into an increasingly well-armed revolutionary movement.

The series of determined stands by rebel forces on Thursday — especially in the strategic city of Zawiyah, near important oil resources and 30 miles from the capital, Tripoli — presented the gravest threat yet to the Libyan leader. In Zawiyah, more than 100 people were killed as Colonel Qaddafi’s forces turned automatic weapons on a mosque filled with protesters, a witness said. Still, residents rallied afterward.

Colonel Qaddafi’s evident frustration at the resistance in Zawiyah spilled out in a rant by telephone over the state television network charging that Osama bin Laden had drugged the town’s youth into a rebellious frenzy.

“Al Qaeda is the one who has recruited our sons,” he said in a 30-minute tirade broadcast by the network. “It is bin Laden.”

Colonel Qaddafi said, “Those people who took your sons away from you and gave them drugs and said ‘Let them die’ are launching a campaign over cellphones against your sons, telling them not to obey their fathers and mothers.”

With the threat of a brutal crackdown looming, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, said he had called an emergency meeting for Friday afternoon in Brussels to discuss the situation in Libya. Humanitarian assistance and the evacuation of foreign nations would be the priority, he said.

In New York, the United Nations Security Council was scheduled to meet Friday afternoon to discuss a proposal backed by France and Britain for sanctions against Libyan leaders, including a possible arms embargo and financial sanctions, though no definitive action was expected until next week.

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Mourners carry a coffin containing the body of a Libyan who was killed in the recent clashes in Benghazi

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, has also said the bloc should consider sanctions such as travel restrictions and an asset freeze against Libya to try to halt to the violence there. Britain and Switzerland have already announced freezes on Colonel Qaddafi’s in country assets.

The violence has underscored the contrast between the character of Libya’s revolution and the uprising that toppled autocrats in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. Unlike those Facebook-enabled youth rebellions, the insurrection has been led by people who are more mature and who have been actively opposing the government for some time. It started with lawyers’ syndicates that have campaigned peacefully for two years for a written constitution and some semblance of a rule of law.

Fueled by popular anger, the help of breakaway leaders of the armed forces and some of their troops, and weapons from looted military stockpiles or smuggled across the border, the uprising here has escalated toward more violence in the face of increasingly brutal government crackdowns.

At the revolt’s starting point, in the eastern city of Benghazi, Fathi Terbil, 39, the human rights lawyer whose detention first ignited the protests, drew a map of rebel-held territory in striking distance of Tripoli. “It is only a matter of days,” he said.

A turning point in the uprising’s evolution was arguably the defection of the interior minister, Abdel Fattah Younes al-Abidi, an army general who had been a close ally of Colonel Qaddafi.

The break by General Abidi, who has family roots near the revolt’s eastern origins, encouraged other disaffected police, military and state security personnel to change sides as well. “We are hoping to use his experience,” said Mr. Terbil, who some called the linchpin of the revolt.

Opposition figures in rebel-held cities like Benghazi have been appearing on cable news channels promising that opponents of Colonel Qaddafi are heading toward Tripoli to bolster the resistance there. Their ability to carry out those assertions remains to be seen.

In parts of the country, the revolutionaries, as they call themselves, appear to have access to potentially large stores of weapons, including small arms and heavy artillery, automatic weapons smuggled from the Egyptian border and rocket-propelled grenades taken from army bases, like the Kabila in Benghazi.

Tawfik al-Shohiby, one of the rebels, said that in the early days of the revolt one of his relatives bought $75,000 in automatic weapons from arms dealers on the Egyptian border and distributed them to citizens’ groups in towns like Bayda.

So far, at least in the east, many of the weapons appear to be held in storage to defend against a future attempt by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces to retake the territory. At a former security services building in Benghazi on Thursday, men in fatigues prepared to transport anti-aircraft and antitank weapons to what one said was a storage depot.

Like their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, the rebels in Libya have shown tech-savvy guile in circumventing government efforts to block their communication. To sidestep the government’s blocking of the Internet and curbing of cellphone access, for example, some of the more active antigovernment protesters distribute flash drives and CDs with videos of the fighting to friends in other towns and to journalists.

Mr. Shohiby began helping lead an effort this week to shuttle foreign journalists from the Egyptian border to towns across eastern Libya.

His network of contacts was built on the Internet: not on Facebook, but on a popular soccer Web site. “I have friends from east to west, north to south,” he said. “There are two guys in Sabha, one in Zawiyah, three friends in Misurata, for example,” he said, speaking of towns that were the scenes of some of the clashes on Thursday.

Still, Mohammed Ali Abdallah, deputy secretary general of an opposition group in exile, The National Front for the Salvation of Libya, said the government’s fierce crackdown made organizing the spontaneous uprising a continuing challenge, especially in heavily guarded Tripoli.

“It is almost like hit and runs,” he said. “There are almost no ways that those young guys can organize themselves. You can’t talk on a mobile phone, and if five people get together in the street they get shot.”

Nonetheless, protesters in Tripoli were calling for a massive demonstration on Friday after noon prayers, residents of the city and those fleeing the country said. In recent days, witnesses said, Colonel Qaddafi appears to have pulled many of his militiamen and mercenaries back toward the capital to prepare for its defense.

But despite the encroaching insurrection, Colonel Qaddafi appeared determined on Thursday to put on a show of strength and national unity, a stark turnabout from his approach so far.

Since the start of the uprising, his government had shut out all foreign journalists, cut off communications and even confiscated mobile phone chips, and other devices that might contain pictures, at the border from people fleeing the country. Libya had warned that reporters who entered the country illegally risked arrest and could be deemed collaborators of Al Qaeda.

But on Thursday, Colonel Qaddafi’s son and heir apparent Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi announced on television that the government would allow teams of journalists to visit Tripoli. Witnesses said the government had made preparations to clean up the city for the visit.

Two banners, in English, were hung over the central Green Square — the scene of violent clashes earlier this week. “Al Jazeera, BBC, don’t spread lies that reflect other’s wishful thinking,” one read. The other: “Family members talk but never fight between each other.”

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Kareem Fahim reported from Benghazi, and David D. Kirkpatrick from the Tunisian border with Libya. Reporting was contributed by Sharon Otterman, Mona El-Naggar and Neil MacFarquhar from Cairo, and Robert F. Worth from Tunis.

See Related: Libya Archive

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