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Rebels Strengthen Hold On Libyan Capital

Filed by KOSU News in World News.
August 26, 2011

Tripoli on Friday enjoyed its calmest day since the rebel takeover nearly a week ago, and hundreds even celebrated with a march chanting: “Hold your head high! You are a free Libyan.”

The more relaxed atmosphere was one of the strongest signs yet that Moammar Gadhafi and his loyalists have largely been driven out of the capital.

With Tripoli more secure, NATO and rebel fighters turned their attention to Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, his last major bastion of support. British warplanes struck a large bunker there, while local rebel commander Fadl-Allah Haron said that if city residents don’t surrender fast, “a battle will be waiting for them there.”

As the fighting waned, the International Red Cross in Geneva expressed concern about treatment of detainees on both sides.

Associated Press reporters saw eight wounded men, apparently Gadhafi supporters, who had been abandoned in a bombed out fire station in the Tripoli neighborhood of Abu Salim, scene of ferocious clashes on Thursday.

Abu Baker Amin, 24, his right leg broken by a grenade, said he had not received food or water for two days. An emaciated man lay on the floor and pleading for water. Local residents made no attempt to get the wounded to a hospital.

Prisoners Freed

NPR’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro visited one of the most notorious places in Libya, the prison in Abu Salim, where many of the country’s political prisoners had been held.

The prison guards ran away on Wednesday, and local residents then let the prisoners out, including Saad Ahmed al-Shoubi, who had been held for 14 years on charges he was an Islamic activist.

“We were afraid, thinking that it was a trick and they were going to kill us,” al-Shoubi said of his escape. “But then we saw the rebels, and I realized I was free. It was the happiest day of my life.”

Shortly afterward, al-Shoubi met up with his twin Mehdi, who had come to the capital on the hope his brother would be freed.

It wasn’t obvious that they were twins, Garcia-Navarro reports, because Saad is very pale after so many years in prison, and Mehdi’s skin is darker from years in the sun.

Akram Mohammed Bin Ramadan — whose father was also imprisoned here – summed up what the prison symbolized to many Libyans.

“A hell hole,” he said. “Whoever comes in here never comes out. This was the most evil place in the country after [Gadhafi's compound].”

Tripoli Residents Begin To Emerge

Elsewhere in Tripoli, some residents emerged gingerly from homes where they had taken cover from extensive gunbattles the rocked the city since the rebels rolled in on Sunday night.

In a mosque near the city’s central square, an imam at Friday noon prayers praised the rebels for taking up arms against Gadhafi. He said they had “liberated the land inch by inch, house by house, alley by alley,” mimicking an infamous Gadhafi speech early in the uprising threatening those who opposed him.

At the end of the prayers, hundreds of worshippers marched outside chanting “Hold your head high! You are a free Libyan,” borrowing a cry heard in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the days after Hosni Mubarak was ousted in the Egyptian uprising.

Most stores remained close, except for neighborhood groceries where residents grabbed supplies to break their daytime fast for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Much of the city was still without electricity and water, and garbage piles were getting higher and smellier by the day.

With Gadhafi’s whereabouts unknown, fears linger that his supporters could still extract revenge.

Small-Scale Skirmishes

While rebels were pushing Gadhafi fighters to Tripoli’s outskirts, occasional firefights flared in the city. Abdul Majid Mgleta, a rebel military chief, said there were still some pockets of resistance, but he hoped to take full control over the capital and capture Gadhafi within days.

In Abu Salim, site of intense street battles on Thursday, rebels were searching for the remnants of pro-Gadhafi forces.

There was massive destruction along Abu Salim’s main road, including torched cars and a fire station hit by rocket-propelled grenades. The smell of smoke filled the air, and three charred bodies lay on the ground floor.

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Steven Anderson, said the aid group was concerned about the treatment of detainees on both sides in Tripoli. The Geneva-based ICRC has been able to visit some prisoners on both sides, said Anderson, but “there are hundreds more probably.”

Rebel Leader Visits Captured Soldiers

Mohammed al-Egely, the rebels’ justice minister, said he has visited detained Gadhafi fighters and that they were being treated according to international humanitarian law. He said the rebels are doing the best they can under the circumstances.

“We are in a state of war, the airport hasn’t even been liberated yet,” he said. “Do you expect the fighters to bring them [prisoners] flowers? They are all fighting, and so there will be victims from each side.”

In Abu Salim’s abandoned main hospital, nearly 50 bodies were stacked in three areas — a parking lot, a ward and in the basement. Another 15 decomposing corpses lay in a grassy area surrounding a traffic roundabout on the outskirts of Abu Salim. Five of the dead were in tent hospital, including one who still had an IV sticking in his arm and another who appeared to have been killed while resting on a mattress.

In the five-day battle over Tripoli, since rebels entered the capital late Sunday, at least 230 people were killed and hundreds more wounded, according to doctors at three major hospitals. But the real toll is likely far higher than that.

In Tripoli, rebel leaders said they’ll establish a new interim government in the capital within 30 days, as part of a move from the eastern city of Benghazi, which fell into opposition hands early in the six-month civil war.

This report contains material from The Associated Press. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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