21. 08. 2011.
Tripoli – The first mortar round smashed into the upper floor of a building showering shrapnel, shards of glass and concrete on to the people gathered on the street below to celebrate victory. Three more followed in rapid succession. Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was lashing out in fury after a week of defeats which had left it trapped and isolated in Tripoli.
One round, landing near a Libyan colleague and me in the garden of a square, failed to detonate, spraying us with dust and clumps of earth instead. But others worked, spreading terror and confusion in Zawiyah. A small crowd had been chanting „Allah hu Akhbar“ and „The blood of the martyrs was not wasted.“ Now they ran for their lives, three men halting to come back and drag away two others with blood streaming from their heads.
The attack was a desperate attempt to halt a rebel advance now just 28 miles from the Libyan capital. The town was pounded for the next hour, the firing indiscriminate, a shrill whistling noise announcing missiles landing in residential areas. A fresh salvo appeared to target the only working medical clinic in the town, the Bir Muammar. The main hospital was out of action, with fresh bullet holes on the walls after a fierce battle.
The battle for Zawiyah had gone on for most of the night and the cost was evident yesterday morning. In the Central Square, now renamed Martyr’s Square, lay the bodies of two of the regime’s soldiers, their faces locked in grimace, showing the terror of the last moments.
A hotel beside the square, the Jawhara Palace, was being used as a vantage point by the regime troops. It had been partly destroyed. Abdul Basat Showas was carrying away souvenirs – two live grenades. „I was thinking of giving these to the Shabaab [volunteer rebel fighters] but I think I will keep them. The Gaddafi men might come back and we need to defend ourselves.“
The counter-attack by what is left of Libya’s government is unlikely to reverse the bloody endgame in this vicious civil war. Every day has led to the fall of another town, with Tripoli’s lifeline to the outside world cut, and its troops, hammered for six months by Nato air strikes, in retreat. Even on the eastern front, where opposition ineptitude had led to a military stalemate, rebel forces declared they had seized the oil port of Brega.
Meanwhile, Nato military action, without which the rebels would have found it impossible to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi, was stepped up, with air strikes on Tripoli focusing, according to the Alliance, on nine military facilities, Zawiyah and Zliten. Since Nato took command of air strikes, on 31 March, they have flown more than 19,000 sorties, including in excess of 7,223 strike sorties.
In Benghazi, the head of the opposition Transitional National Council (TNC), Mustafa Abdel Jalil, declared, „the end is very near“ for Col Gaddafi: „I expect a catastrophic end … and I expect he will create a situation within Tripoli,“ he warned. The US State Department said yesterday: „His days are numbered.“
Members of the regime were taking the last exit out of the capital. The oil minister, Omran Abukraa, decided yesterday not to return after attending an Opec meeting in Tunisia in the place of his predecessor, Shokri Ghanem, who had already defected. On Friday, Abdel-Salam Jalloud, Colonel Gaddafi’s former number two, who remained a senior figure in the hierarchy, fled with his family, reporting in rebel-held Zintan that most of the checkpoints on the road out had been abandoned.
Hundreds of Tripoli’s residents were also leaving for the relative safety of the mountains to the south, with soldiers and police making no attempts to stop them. Others were openly discussing life after Col Gaddafi in the streets. The Libyan leader’s own plan remained unclear, an American TV channel, citing anonymous US officials as source, claimed that he may depart for Tunisia with his family.
Some of the foreign nationals left inside Tripoli are due to be evacuated by the United Nations. Officials at the International Organisation for Migration said yesterday that the operation would have to be by sea, and details were being discussed with the Libyan administration and Nato, whose ships and aircraft are carrying out a blockade of the Libyan coast.
Some rebel fighters have a timetable which would mean that the Libyan capital would be captured before the UN manages to organise its mission. Khalid Ali Hamdani, 27, who had taken time off from his job as an optometrist to join the revolution, looked down at the Kalashnikov in his hands. „I have been carrying this since February and we all want to get to Tripoli as soon as possible,“ he said. „We have to get to the gates and wait. Our brothers inside will then rise up. We should be able to do this in days.“
However, the rebel commanders and their Western advisers ,who are evident in the town of Zintan, are trying to curb the enthusiasm of their fighters. Previous offensives have ended in retreat because of overstretched lines and small groups running into ambushes by regime forces.
The final days: Libyan leader’s options are fast running out
Mile by mile, he is being encircled. Road by road, his supply routes are being cut. And one by one, some of his closest aides are defecting. The imminent demise – feet-first, or on a plane or other vehicle of exile – of the man who has ruled Libya for 42 years has been asserted many times in the past five months, not least in one of Foreign Secretary William Hague’s less distinguished moments. But this time, unless some sandstorm of a sudden reversal takes place, it really does look like the final days of Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi are approaching.
The regime forces, after being pulverised for months by Nato, do not appear to have the capabilities to break through the rebels and re-establish a lifeline to the outside world. The rebels are still pretty inept, but they are receiving training and considerable assistance from Western former forces contractors, who are now planning and accompanying their missions.
The capture of the refinery in Zawiyah means the gasoline supply to Tripoli is now cut. There is at least a month’s worth of reserves, although some of it has been destroyed in Nato attacks. Talks were held last Sunday and Monday in Tunis and Djerba with both rebels and the regime saying they want to avoid the bloodbath which will come if the opposition tries to storm Tripoli.
The sticking point is what happens to Col Gaddafi. So where is he? Almost certainly not where anyone outside his inner circle expects him to be, otherwise he would already have been killed by intensified Nato strikes. He has not been seen in public since 30 May, or on television since 12 June. The only surfacing has been a low-quality audio message broadcast last Monday. It contained no clue as to when it was recorded.
But, wherever he is, his options are fast diminishing. NBC, citing US administration sources, says Col Gaddafi and his family may go to Tunisia. But this will still keep them within the reach of International Criminal Court warrants. Other possible receptacles for him include Zimbabwe or Equatorial Guinea. He might choose to go down fighting, but an 11th-hour deal is more likely, with the threat of a bloodbath in Tripoli as the bargaining chip.
Source: David Randall and Kim Sengupta /Independent/