Libyan Noose Tightens

I am writing this Friday morning onthe Pacific Coastas we continue to get snippets of news out of Libya.  It is obvious that the rebellion is coalescingaround Libyan army units who have deserted and have joined the rebellion.  This allows a scratch defense to be thrown upanywhere an aggressive government force appears and they are beating of any assaults.

A fair bet is that we will seeeverything around Tripolisecured before a major test of the pro government military strength takesplace.  There is a lot to do and there isalso the possibility of many more defections taking place as government forcescome to believe that the situation is hopeless. Thus a simple strangulation of the city through a siege is a very goodpresent option, particularly if government forces have enough fight to repel asimple assault.

In the end, it has becomehopeless for Qaddafi unless he is able to establish a real perimeter thatallows resupply and that presently looks unlikely, or at least it is now a realfight to do so.  If the rebel military issufficient and mobile enough, then they could break into Tripoli tomorrow and bring this whole thingcrashing down.  I suspect that they arestill organizing and force concentration has not happened yet.

Communication is effectively inthe hands of the rebellion at this point and one must assume that they arestill sorting out who is in and who is out in terms of a final assault.

Once Qaddafi is able to countheads and understand that the majority of the army has deserted if that is true,then he will fold his tent and escape. Thus the real fight right now is for the hearts and minds of theofficers and rank and file.  We will knowthe tipping point when the military hunts down the mercenaries brought in byQaddafi.  All this takes some time thatis cheap to provide while building up rebel strength.

So if it does not end suddenly wewill have a delay while the army sorts itself out.  Then sooner or later it is over and can haveonly one outcome, whatever Qaddafi wants to believe.

Libyan Rebels Repel Qaddafi’s Forces Near Tripoli

Published: February 24, 2011

BENGHAZI, Libya — Rebels seeking to overturn the 40-year rule of Col.Muammar el-Qaddafi repelleda concerted assault by his forces on Thursday on cities close to the capital,removing any doubt that Libya’s patchwork ofprotests had 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 and30 miles from the capital, Tripoli — presented the gravest threat yet to theLibyan leader. In Zawiyah, more than 100 people were killed as Colonel Qaddafi’sforces turned automatic weapons on a mosque filled with protesters, a witnesssaid. Still, residents rallied afterward.

Colonel Qaddafi’s evident frustration at the resistance in Zawiyahspilled out in a rant by telephone over the state television network chargingthat Osama bin Laden haddrugged the town’s youth into a rebellious frenzy.

Al Qaeda is the one who hasrecruited 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 youand gave them drugs and said ‘Let them die’ are launching a campaign overcellphones against your sons, telling them not to obey their fathers andmothers.”

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

Fueled by popular anger, the help of breakaway leaders of the armedforces and some of their troops, and weapons from looted military stockpiles orsmuggled across the border, the uprising here has escalated toward moreviolence 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 theprotests, drew a map of rebel-held territory in striking distance of Tripoli. “It is only amatter of days,” he said.

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

The break by General Abidi, who has family roots near the revolt’seastern origins, encouraged other disaffected police, military and statesecurity personnel to change sides as well. “We are hoping to use hisexperience,” said Mr. Terbil, who some called the linchpin of the revolt.
Opposition figures in rebel-held cities like Benghazihave been appearing on cable news channels promising that opponents of ColonelQaddafi are heading toward Tripolito bolster the resistance there. Their ability to carry out those assertionsremains 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 smallarms and heavy artillery, automatic weapons smuggled from the Egyptian borderand rocket-propelled grenades taken from army bases, like the Kabila inBenghazi.

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

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

Like their counterparts in Tunisiaand Egypt, the rebels in Libyahave shown tech-savvy guile in circumventing government efforts to block theircommunication. To sidestep the government’s blocking of the Internet andcurbing of cellphone access, for example, some of the more activeantigovernment protesters distribute flash drives and CDs with videos of thefighting to friends in other towns and to journalists.

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

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

Still, Mohammed Ali Abdallah, deputy secretary general of an oppositiongroup in exile, The National Front for the Salvation of Libya, said the government’sfierce crackdown made organizing the spontaneous uprising a continuingchallenge, especially in heavily guarded Tripoli.

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

Nonetheless, protesters in Tripoliwere 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 militiamenand mercenaries back toward the capital to prepare for its defense.

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

Since the start of the uprising, his government had shut out allforeign journalists, cut off communications and even confiscated mobile phonechips, and other devices that might contain pictures, at the border from peoplefleeing the country. Libyahad warned that reporters who entered the country illegally risked arrest andcould be deemed collaborators of Al Qaeda.

But on Thursday, Colonel Qaddafi’s son and heir apparent Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi announcedon television that the government would allow teams of journalists to visit Tripoli. Witnesses saidpreparations for the visit were already under way.

The soldiers and mercenaries who had previously roamed the streets hadlargely disappeared by the late afternoon, leaving only traffic police officers,and the capital’s central Green Square — the scene of violent clashes earlier thisweek — had been cleaned up. Two banners, in English, now adorned the square. “Al Jazeera,BBC, don’t spread lies that reflectother’s wishful thinking,” one read. The other: “Family members talk but neverfight between each other.”

But the rebels’ unexpected strength was undeniable on Thursday as theyappeared to hold or contest several towns close to Colonel Qaddafi’s strongholdin Tripoli inthe face of a coordinated push by his mercenaries and security forces.

In Misurata, 130 miles the east of the capital, Colonel Qaddafi’sforces struck at rebels guarding the airport with rocket-propelled grenades andmortar shells, The Associated Press reported. But the rebels seized ananti-aircraft gun used by the militias and turned it against them.

In Zuwarah, 75 miles west of the capital, the police and securityforces had pulled out and a “people’s committee” was controlling the city,several people who had fled across the border reported. “The people are takingcare of their own business,” said Basem Shams, 26, a fisherman.

In Sabratha, 50 miles west of the capital, witnesses reported that thepolice headquarters and offices of Colonel Qaddafi’s revolutionary committeeswere all in smoldering ruins. “We are not afraid; we are watching,” said adoctor by telephone from Sabratha. “What I am sure about, is that change iscoming.”

In Zawiyah, an envoy from Colonel Qaddafi had reportedly arrived towarn rebels on Wednesday: “Either leave or you will see a massacre,” oneresident told The A.P.

About 5 a.m. Thursday, Colonel Qaddafi’s forces fulfilled their threat.Witnesses said a force that included about 60 foreign mercenaries assaulted acentral mosque where some of the roughly 2,000 protesters had sought refuge.One witness said the protesters were armed mainly with rifles, sticks andknives, but after four hours of fighting they managed to hold the square.

About 100 people were killed and 200 were wounded, this witness said.During a telephone interview with him, a voice could be heard over aloudspeaker in the background telling the crowd, in an area known as Martyrs Square, notto be afraid.

“People came to send a clear message: We are not afraid of death oryour bullets,” one resident told The A.P. “This regime will regret it. Historywill not forgive them.”

Meanwhile, the violence sowed concern across the region and beyond. President Obama spokeThursday, in separate calls, with President Nicolas Sarkozy of Franceand the prime ministers of Britain and Italy, David Cameron and Silvio Berlusconi.

The White House said the leaders expressed “deep concern” over theLibyan government’s use of force and discussed possible responses, withoutspecifying what steps they were prepared to take.

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

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