Libya's rebels struggle to control Tripoli

Libya's rebels cracked down on looting and tried to prevent vigilante justice across the capital today as the National Transitional Council began setting up shop.

Francois Mori/AP
Libyan youths carry away boxes of computer equipment in the Abu Salim district of Tripoli, Libya, Friday, Aug. 26.

At Bab Al-Azizya, Muammar Qaddafi’s sprawling compound in the center of Tripoli, the pillaging of regime memorabilia was down to the colonel’s dirty laundry this morning. But a few miles to the south, in the Abu Salim neighborhood, looting on an industrial scale had just started.

A traffic jam formed at the entrance to a large warehouse filled to the rafters with computers, printers, air conditioning units, and refrigerators. Despite the lingering danger of Qaddafi loyalist snipers in the surrounding buildings, people without transportation could be seen carting off refrigerators on their backs.

“This warehouse used to be the property of the Qaddafis; now it belongs to the Libyan people,” said one man armed with an AK-47.

The looting frenzy continued until a convoy of rebel soldiers in pick-up trucks pulled up outside the warehouse. The fighters angrily shot in the air and ordered people to return the looted appliances.

“This is haram!” shouted an angry rebel, using the Arabic word that means forbidden by Islam.

A local resident attempted to chase away foreign journalists at the scene. “This is bad for my country,” he said. “We are not like the Qaddafis; we are not thieves.”

The scene illustrated the limbo that the Libyan capital has found itself in this week, after the rebel army came down from Libya's western mountains and routed the seemingly entrenched Qaddafi army in a lightning offensive.

It is not quite chaos, and the looting is by no means widespread. But there is a sense of anarchy as rebel fighters, strained by months of street fighting – some in casts and bandages – try to maintain some semblance of order as the National Transitional Council (NTC) sets up shop in the capital.

The NTC held a press conference in Tripoli last night, formally announcing that it was moving its base of operations from the eastern city of Benghazi to Tripoli. The council, which has been recognized by Western governments as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, has laid out detailed plans for the transition period.

Those plans include securing the capital, establishing a government presence in Tripoli, and transitioning to an elected government within eight months. They also outline a national reconciliation program to make sure Qaddafi supporters have a place in society, as well as just trials for those who committed crimes during his regime.

“If this program goes as hoped, we’re going to secure a good future for Libyans,” NTC member Mustafa Almanea told the Monitor in the wee hours of Thursday morning, as the Benghazi-based concil prepared for the move. The road map for the next year also includes a plan to transition civilian fighters who joined the revolution either into the military or back into civilian life, to get guns out of the hands of regular Libyans.

“The transition for Libyans is going to be from the revolution to the state,” said Mr. Manea. “It will need a lot of hard work but it’s not impossible."

'We have lost so many'

At the Al Wadan hotel on Tripoli’s seaside boulevard, fighters were bathing in a swimming pool with water that had turned a bright green from lack of maintenance.

The Al Wadan has become the headquarters for some of the fighters from Misurata, who finally broke a months-long siege on their city by Qaddafi’s troops and reached Tripoli both by road and by sea.

One fighter was overcome with emotion as he tried to express the feeling of finally being in Tripoli, with the remnants of Qaddafi’s army now on the run. “We have lost so many friends, too many to name,” he says, choking.

But the Misrata fighters are not allowed to rest just yet. They regularly take off in their pick-up trucks whenever they receive word of pockets of resistance from Qaddafi’s army.

At the roundabout just south of the Bab al-Aziziya compound, a grisly sight underscores the dangers faced by fighters in the endgame of Qaddafi's rule.

At an apparent field hospital set up by Qaddafi's troops who were defending the compound, roughly two dozen bodies appear to have been executed. One man lying on a dirty mattress inside a tent was hooked up to an IV when he was killed. Another two had their hands tied behind their back. Many were wearing civilian clothes.

All the bodies had a green wristband, identifying them as Qaddafi fighters, but the wristbands looked suspiciously clean compared to the state of their clothing.

Nearby rebels said Qaddafi's troops were responsible for the killings. But the other explanation, that rebel fighters took revenge on their enemies, seems just as plausible.

Separately, Amnesty International said today that Qaddafi loyalists had killed "numerous" detainees at two military camps on Aug. 23 and 24, noting that the killing or torturing of prisoners is considered a war crime under international law.

"Loyalist forces in Libya must immediately stop such killings of captives, and both sides must commit to ensuring no harm comes to prisoners in their custody," Amnesty said in a statement. "Even as Colonel al-Qaddafi is cornered, with an ICC warrant active for his arrest on charges of crimes against humanity, his troops continue their flagrant disregard for human life and international humanitarian law."

Tensions between rebel groups

So far there are no signs that the motley crew of fighters from different tribes and cities in Libya have begin to turn on each other now that their common enemy is nearly vanquished.

But tensions are clear as they assert pride in the role that they’ve played in the past seven months of war.

Walls, bridges, and checkpoints are covered with graffiti that signals the towns where the fighters came from: Jadu, Zintan, Nalut, Misrata, Zlitan.

At one point a traffic jam of rebel vehicles at an intersection resulted in a shouting match.

“Get out of the way! We are from Zintan!” shouted one driver.

“I don’t care if you’re from Zintan. We’re from Jadu,” the other driver shouted back

A Qaddafi unit headquarters breached

So far the fighters from outside seem to be controlling the main roads and strategic buildings in the city, while groups of armed Tripoli civilians have formed to protect the neighborhoods.

One such group was manning a checkpoint in the Al Dahharra district in central Tripoli on Thursday.

Imad Shabaan, an oil company manager wielding an AK-47, explains how his neighbors got together and ran out the so-called "Hawk brigade" loyal to Qaddafi.

“They had sniper positions set up in the local school, but when the rebels finally entered Tripoli, they just ran,” says Mr. Shabaan. “We caught five of them, two Algerians and three Tuaregs,” referring to nomads from southern Libya who have remained loyal to Qaddafi’s regime until the end. “We handed them over to the rebel army.”

The men led reporters into a nearby office building that served as a headquarters for the Hawk brigade. Inside were piles of registration slips for new members of the brigade, complete with pictures, the weapons they were given and the number of bullets.

The Hawk brigade was part of Gaddafi’s increasingly desperate attempts to raise extra men to fight off the rebels.

“In the last few weeks, they were running TV ads promising people up to 5,000 dinars ($4,166) per month and a car if they joined up,” says 21-year old Mohammed El Buashi, whose father made 1,000 dinars ($833) as a colonel in Qaddafi’s marines until he quit soon after the start of the rebellion.

The Libyan rebels have often said that Gaddafi’s army was constituted mainly by mortazaga – mercenaries from neighboring African countries. But the Hawk brigade seemed to be entirely made up of Libyans. One of them was a woman in a headscarf; she was issued a 9mm. handgun.

“These were poor people who were paid to fight,” says Ahmed Ferhat, a local sheikh and the head of the neighborhood watch group, who recognized one of them as a former coworker in the tourism department where he once worked. “They were given 100 dinars ($83) per day.”

There were no pay slips to confirm the sheikh’s assertion. Instead there were orders to a local phone company to give free SIM cards to the brigade’s members, transcripts of phone taps, and print-outs from surveillance cameras identifying the “traitors” in an anti-Qaddafi demonstration by name and nickname.

“Many of those people ended up in Abu Slim and other prisons,” says Shabaan, referring to the prison notorious for a 1996 massacre in which up to 1,200 prisoners were killed.

Revenge or justice?

The men in El Daharra are divided over what should be the fate for Qaddafi and his supporters.

“They should be given a fair trial,” says Shabaan.

“We should hang Qaddafi in Green Square,” says Mr. Ferhat, the sheikh.

“You’re not supposed to say that,” intervened Shabaan. “We’re supposed to say that Gaddafi too deserves a fair trial.”

“Alright,” agrees Ferhat. “We’ll give him a fair trial, then we’ll hang him in Green Square.”

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