Tripoli quiet as rebels advance on Sirte

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.

TRIPOLIS, Libya — 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.

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 neighbourhood 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.

With the capital 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.”

Back 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 neighbourhood 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.

But for 49-year-old Umm Yahya, limping on a cane through Tripoli’s shuttered downtown, leaning on her daughter for help, the fear and suffering was worth it to taste freedom.

“We can speak freely now, we can talk on the phone,” she said. “People are comfortable now spiritually and with that, anything is possible,” she said with a tired smile.

The past few days have not been easy for Umm Yahya and the other residents of Tripoli. With almost all stores closed, people have been living on whatever supplies they have at home. Her family has been surviving on pasta and tomato paste.

The situation is so dire that on Friday, some Tripoli residents were scavenging for food and water in the notorious Abu Salim prison, where many political prisoners were held until it was emptied a few days ago.

Later on Friday, however, a few more residents appeared on the streets carrying groceries as shops in downtown opened briefly to allow people to restock.

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

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 the afternoon, shots were fired at the roof terrace of the Corinthia hotel where scores of journalists were working. The shots came from nearby high-rise buildings. A rebel dressed in fatigues crossed the terrace to the fence and began shooting randomly at the buildings. At one point, rebels also fired anti-aircraft guns and a large explosion was heard. There has been fighting around the hotel for several days now.

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

In a rural area between the neighbourhood and Tripoli’s airport, rebels detained seven men and a woman and loaded them into a pickup truck, saying Gadhafi fighters might try to blend in with civilians.

“Things are still not stable and we are arresting anybody we find suspicious and taking them to the military council,” said field commander Fathi Shneibi.

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. Curious onlookers walked past the bodies, their feet crunching on broken glass and scattered medical equipment from a clinic attached to the station.

On the second floor of the station, four injured men moaned for water. Area residents stepped over two men lying side by side in a hallway. One said he was from Niger. When asked why he was in Libya, he said “I really don’t know.”

In one room, an injured Gadhafi supporter couldn’t speak from pain. In the parking lot, rebels kept guard over four injured men they said were Gadhafi loyalists. Rebels in the area said there were no hospitals available or cars to take the men for treatment. They said they wanted to take them for interrogation before they received medical treatment.

“These are from the Gadhafi brigades!” exclaimed one of the neighbours.

Eventually, a rebel agreed to take as many wounded as he could fit in his pickup truck to a hospital, but was stopped repeatedly at checkpoints, where some kicked the prisoners, spat on them and tried to stop their transfer to the hospital.

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Steven Anderson, said the neutral 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.”

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, a few minutes from the fire house, 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.

A majority of the dead were darker skinned than most Libyans. Gadhafi had recruited fighters from sub-Saharan Africa, but many others from the region are in Libya as migrant workers.

It was not clear when the men had been killed, but rebels often suspect sub-Saharan Africans of being mercenaries.

Earlier this week, rebel fighters came to international doctors and nurses working in Tripoli with the bodies of 17 men who had been “shot in the back of the head at close range,” said Rabih Torbay, vice-president for international operations for the International Medical Corps. Torbay said his staff could not confirm how the 17 died.

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.

Mgleta said that about 100 rebels were killed in the battle when they seized control of Gadhafi’s Bab al-Azizya compound on Tuesday.

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.

It may get some badly needed cash soon: Britain is seeking approval to release about $1.6 billion in seized Libyan bank notes to help pay public sector workers.

The rebels’ National Transitional Council has been taking over official buildings in Tripoli and setting up a security committee, said Mahmoud Shamman, the information minister. The new interim government will likely include some who worked in the Gadhafi regime, but were sympathetic to the rebels, he said.

“The only people we are going to exclude are the people who killed others and stole money,” Shammam said.

NATO, meanwhile, said its warplanes targeted 29 vehicles mounted with weapons near Sirte, a city of 150,000 about 250 miles (400 kilometres) east of Tripoli. Rebels are trying to advance toward Sirte but expect fierce resistance from Gadhafi loyalists.

The two main tribes in Sirte rejected rebel offers to negotiate a peaceful surrender. Tribal loyalties are strong in the desert nation of 6 million. Gadhafi also seeded supporters in key posts and built up militias and armed “revolutionary committees” to be the final line of support for him and his powerful sons if regular military forces defected.

In London, British Defence Secretary Liam Fox said some elements of the Gadhafi regime were in Sirte “where they are still continuing to wage war on the people of Libya.” He said NATO would continue to strike at pro-Gadhafi forces.

“The regime needs to recognize that the game is up,” Fox said.

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