Gunshots Part Of Everyday Life In Tripoli

We were just about to have some dinner in our small hotel in central Tripoli when the quiet streets were suddenly filled with loud bangs and shouts.  Initially we barely flinched – in a city where every other man is armed these days, celebratory gunfire is just part of the daily colour on the streets.

The odd shot here and there turns into a cacophony of automatic fire most Thursday evenings when the residents of the capital stream on foot and in their cars towards Martyrs – formerly Gaddafi’s ‘Green’ – Square.

It is gridlock.

The new national anthem blaring out of loud speakers mixes with the sound of ammunition and fireworks; the resurrected flag of the Libyan monarchy brandished from every car window and sold at impromptu souvenir stalls.

But this evening was different.  Somehow the gunshots were more threatening, focused and less carefree.  As we moved down the street to find out what was going on; NTC forces sped past us towards the commotion.

More gunshots and screams brought one of them back towards us – there was a Gaddafi supporter he said, one who was resisting arrest.  He was armed he said, and firing at the NTC men trying to talk him down.  By this time, families were coming out onto the balconies of the apartment blocks above.  They peered down the street, shouting at us to get back and stay out of the way.  Young lads ran past, eager to see what all the fuss was about.

A few nights ago their boyish fascination with guns and drama got a gruesome reward.

One of the revolutionaries guarding the street had been demonstrating a move to his colleagues when his AK47 went off.  He was taken to Tripoli central hospital with a gaping wound to the stomach.  Tonight though, they came back looking thoroughly dejected.  It was not a Gaddafi supporter after all. Just a neighbourhood dispute that had got out of hand. No bloody firefight, no excitement for them.

Earlier today we visited a boy their age in a Tripoli hospital. We were filming there a few weeks ago when 15-year-old Abdul was rushed into the Emergency department with his friend.  The two boys had found a grenade outside their school – a remnant of the fierce battles during the ‘liberation’ of Tripoli.  They had been trying to prise open their new toy when it blew up in their faces.

Abdul is starting to smile again and enjoying the home-cooked food his father brings into the hospital.  But he has got a long and slow recovery ahead. And it will be a while before he comes to terms with his best friend’s death.  No such harm done this evening. But it is worrying to see guns and bullets become such common currency on the streets; representative of playtime and celebration rather than the lethal weapons of war they really are.

The National Transitional Council says it will eventually collect the weapons off the streets of Libya.

Let’s hope that by then they haven’t become such an entrenched part of everyday life that people won’t want to give them up.

Libya: Infighting Stalls Interim Govt Talks

After the jubilation and cheers that surrounded David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Libya last week, it is back to business for the nation’s ruling National Transitional Council (NTC).

The two European leaders acknowledged there would be big challenges to come – but the NTC must have hoped those challenges would not come quite so soon.

The Libyan leaders had planned to follow up the high-profile international visitswith a high-profile announcement of their own – a new government committee or cabinet that would bring unity to a country divided along tribal and geographical lines.

Despite negotiations over the weekend in Benghazi, council members have been unable to agree on the set-up of the new body or on its members.

The indication from an NTC spokesman so far is that it will be formed of 24 members, rather than the 36 they had originally mooted.  NTC interim head Mahmoud Jibril is favourite to continue as prime minister, but is likely to relinquish his second post of foreign minister.  We are told the cabinet will “expire as soon as they have declared full liberation of Libyan lands”, paving the way for democratic elections.  The spokesman said this could be “in two weeks, two months or two years, depending on how long it takes to liberate the lands”.

But it is precisely this ‘liberation’ that is the main sticking point in the negotiations.  Some members of the NTC are apparently reluctant even to consider talking about forming a new cabinet while significant areas of the country remain out of their control.

Battles are still raging in and around the Gaddafi strongholds of Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha.

NTC forces are struggling to make any inroads into the towns, which are being held by diehard supporters of the former dictator.

Furthermore, the friction between the leaders of the NTC is mirrored by infighting among their forces on the ground.

They are suffering increasing numbers of casualties, and despite reinforcements and a number of assaults on the pro-Gaddafi towns, they have been repeatedly repelled.  Some fighters complain they are confused; that they are receiving conflicting orders, suggesting the NTC is struggling to establish central co-ordinated command over the different regions.

Despite extra weapons and men being sent to the frontlines from further afield, many of the fighters are also concerned they are outgunned and outnumbered by an enemy that is dug-in, had time to prepare and has clearly hoarded an arsenal of heavy weapons.

The NTC is going to have to find a way of unifying its own members and fighters if it is to set an example for the rest of the country to pull together and work towards a more stable future.

Fighter Pilots Return To Libya As Heroes

Two Libyan fighter pilots who defected to Malta instead of bombing their own citizens have returned to Tripoli and a hero’s welcome.

The two men have spent the last six months in exile in Malta after refusing to fire on protesters in Benghazi last February.  As they stepped off a small Maltese air force plane onto the tarmac in Tripoli, their priority was the families they left behind to face the wrath of the Gaddafi regime.

Their names were given as Abdullah al Salheen and Ali al Rabti.  To cheers and hugs from friends and supporters, they were led away to be reunited with their loved ones.  Six months ago, the two men were scrambled in their French-built F1 Mirage planes as the demonstrations took hold in the early days of the uprising in the country’s east.

But just minutes before opening fire, they said they changed their minds and decided to defect abroad.  The move, which would have been a brave one in a democratic country, could have been a fatal one under Col Gaddafi’s regime.  Other pilots who defected around the same time were not so fortunate.

Two who fled to Algeria were sent back to Libya where the regime reportedly made an example of them – with a public execution.  The returning heroes from the Okba Bin Nafe airbase near Tripoli chose their host country wisely.  After flying just 200ft above the Mediterranean Sea to avoid radar detection, they came in to land at the main airport in Malta.  When they made contact with the radio tower both pilots claimed they had run out of fuel.  When they were taken into custody and questioned they revealed their true motives and requested political asylum – while staying in an air force officers’ mess.

Their bravery three days after the start of the revolution inspired thousands of fellow Libyans to raise their voices in revolt against the dictatorial regime.  Colonel Gaddafi’s most high-profile son, Saif al Islam, threatened “rivers of blood” if opposition to his father was not squashed.  Six months on, the fighter pilots have returned to what is being called a “free” Tripoli.

But Col Gaddafi’s supporters seem determined to make good on his son’s promise in the areas of Libya, such as their home town of Sirte, still under their control.

‘Freedom Fighters’ Pull Back From Bani Walid

Four miles from the outskirts of Bani Walid, the men who are now calling themselves ‘Freedom Fighters’ have pulled back from the town, assaulted by the heavy rockets and artillery fire of the pro-Gaddafi forces.

We have finally been able to get to the front line proper – hindered until now by over-zealous ‘media handling’ by the anti-Gaddafi troops and their leaders.  The media convoy snaked its way south down the single lane tarmac road in whacky racers style.

The scenery is a wide expanse of orange dusty plains interspersed with craggy outcrops – reminiscent of old cowboy films. But it’s not the injuns firing at us – and their weapons are considerably more powerful.

To begin with it looks like we have arrived at a holding area for the fighters who have pulled back over the ridge and are preparing for their next surge forward.

Some of them tell us they are frustrated as they felt they were making progress; but they say the decision to pull back has come from on-high – a joint decision by the National Transitional Council and NATO.

As they wait for their next orders, they pass the time playing loud revolutionary music and firing anti-aircraft and AK47 rounds into the air, accompanied by a healthy dose of ‘Allah u Akbar!’

But it is not long before their shots are answered by incoming rounds whistling past our heads.

Journalists and fighters alike dive for cover as another volley crackles down. By this time the music has stopped and the party atmosphere around some of the anti-Gaddafi forces makes way for bossy orders for us to move out of the area.

Our team hops back in our trusty minibus and we move off down the road. A few hundred metres further on, we stop again only to find we are still in range of the rockets and artillery being fired out of Bani Walid.

So in between hasty camera shots of the crumps and billowing smoke, we move off down the road again.

From our next layby, we watch and listen to the familiar sound of planes circling overhead before loud explosions echo off the stony hills around us.

They have sent in the cavalry and the Allah u Akbars begin all over again.

Libya: More Bloodshed In Battle For Bani Walid

As convoys of anti-Gaddafi troops move forward towards Bani Walid, more bloodshed is predicted in the effort to take one of Muammar Gaddafi’s remaining strongholds.

At regular intervals, ambulances screech by in the opposite direction towards the clinic in the nearest village fifty kilometres away.

The reinforcements from the north started the day at the mosque, praying for victory in their hometown, before heading to the front line.

The National Transitional Council’s negotiator for the area, Abdullah Kenshil told us they have about 4,000 rebel fighters surrounding the collection of hamlets in the valley.

It is thought there are only around 50 die-hard Gaddafi supporters holed up in the area, but they have had time to prepare for what may well be their last stand.

When the fighters launched their assault on Friday evening, they faced difficult terrain and a barrage of heavy weaponry including rockets and artillery.

They claim their enemy is using residents’ houses as bases and firing points, making it almost impossible to fire back without risking the lives of civilians.

Abdullah Kenshil is optimistic they can take the town but says he is determined they will do it legally and while respecting human rights.

He has issued a directive to all troops, demanding: “You will not enter houses; you will not hurt the people. You will not fire in the air; prisoners will be captured and judged through the courts…”

But there is already tension between the different communities and leaders involved in the battle.

:: Pictures – Anti-Gaddafi Forces Close In On Bani Walid

The Bani Walid commanders refused to wait for the deadline imposed by Benghazi’s National Transitional Council but say the early attack was justified.

“They are inside the city, they are fighting with snipers. They forced this on us and it was in self-defence,” said Abdullah Kenshil.

And the people of Bani Walid are determined to claim this victory as theirs alone -reluctant to allow so-called ‘foreign’ fighters onto their land.

They are proud and historically very independent and they are keen to capture the “Big Fish” Abdullah Kenshil says is personally pulling the strings behind the fierce resistance in the town.

He is convinced Colonel Gaddafi himself is leading his men, alongside his former spokesman Moussa Ibrahim and at least two of his sons.

The rebel fighters have now reached the outskirts of Bani Walid. Their target, the Souk, or market place is two kilometres away.

But it may be some time before they claim the town and any Gaddafi prize within it.

And it will surely bring more of the bloodshed that they were so desperate to avoid.

Anti-Gaddafi Forces Pledge ‘No Bloodshed’

They’ve edged south from Tripoli for days, appealing to the people of Bani Walid for a peaceful resolution.

Now the celebratory gunfire is deafening as the rebels have got one step closer to ridding the Gaddafi stronghold of the deposed regime loyalists.

Thirty miles outside Bani Walid, the town’s elders came face to face with Abdullah Kenshil.

On the floor of the mosque, the main adviser to the National Transitional Council, a man born and bred in Bani Walid, appealed to the clan chiefs: “I know you will accept to join the rebels and stop the suffering of our people.”

In a deferential tone, he assured them that the rebels did not want any more bloodshed but a peaceful and united Libya: “Bani Walid is an important piece of Libyan history – we are not here to tell you what to do or to judge you.

“We will not enter any houses or harm anyone.

“We have a message for our sons in Bani Walid who are carrying weapons – we will do what the prophet Mohammed did; he was good to the people who killed his companions and forced him to leave his hometown.”

To cheers from around the room and chants of Allah u Akbar, the NTC’s prime minister Mahmoud Jabril, reinforced that message on the phone from Benghazi: “This is a key moment for the town, we should not squander this opportunity; and only a judge and the courts can decide the fate of the people who are carrying weapons against us.”

It’s unclear how many Gaddafi loyalists are still holed up in Bani Walid.

Until very recently the rebels had claimed former regime spokesman Moussa Ibrahim and two of Gaddafi’s sons were still moving in and around the town.

Now they say they may have fled, taking away what little leadership the die-hard Gaddafi fighters had left in the area.

It’s been days since Bani Walid had electricity or water and they’re running out of food and medical supplies.

The town’s elders talked of engineers on standby to repair the infrastructure and lines of communication; they talked of medical supplies and staff waiting to get the call to travel in from Tripoli.

Their message is clear: they want a peaceful transition and a chance for life to get back to normal for the ordinary people of Bani Walid.

With Abdullah Kenshil’s promise in hand, they now need to convince them that, contrary to the Gaddafi rhetoric broadcast to the town by loud speaker, the rebels will be true to their word.