In Libya, Both Sides Gird for Long War as Civilian Toll Mounts
TRIPOLI, Libya — Both sides of the conflict in Libya were girding for more confrontations on Sunday, a day after militia forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi launched a new round of attacks on the rebel-held city of Zawiyah, just 30 miles west of the capital, and a ragtag rebel army moving from the east won its first ground battle to take the oil port of Ras Lanuf, about midway down the Mediterranean coast.
Rebels in nearby towns said that mobile phone service to Zawiyah had been cut off completely and landline service was intermittent, making it difficult to gather new information about the state of the siege. Second-hand reports through rebel networks on Sunday indicated Libyan army tanks had once again moved into the center of the town.
An hour before dawn on Sunday, Tripoli also erupted in gunfire, the sounds of machine guns and heavier artillery echoing through the capital. The spark was unclear — there were rumors of a conflict within the armed Qaddafi forces — but soon Qaddafi supporters were riding through the streets waving green flags and firing guns into the air. Crowds converged on the city’s central Green Square for a rally, with many people still shooting skyward. The shots rang out for more than three hours, with occasional ambulance sirens squealing in the background.
Government spokesmen called it a celebration of victories over the rebels, but the rebels denied any losses, pointing out that 6 a.m. Sunday is an unusual time for a victory rally and that rally was notably well-armed. Protesters in the capital suggested it was a show of force intended to deter unrest or possibly cover up some earlier conflict.A rebel spokesman, reached over the phone, said his leadership was relying on international media reports to try to make sense of the early morning gunfire in Tripoli.
“It is very hard to reach Trip, ” he said, alluding to the pervasive surveillance and recent spate of arrests. “When we talk to someone in Tripoli you put their life in jeopardy.”
By early afternoon Sunday, Libyan state television and government officials in Tripoli were making increasingly strong and apparently false statements about progress against the rebels. Officials said that Qaddafi forces had captured the city of Misrata as well as the leaders of the rebels governing counsel and would soon retake the country. State television reported that Qaddafi forces were marching on the rebel headquarters of Benghazi. But multiple reports from the ground on the front lines and in rebel territory indicated that all those reports were false and in fact rebels were fighting near the port of Surt, the town where Colonel Qaddafi was born and which blocks the rebels’ progress toward Tripoli.
Rebels in control of Misrata said they had successfully rebuffed a Libyan army incursion into their town. One witness said their forces had surrounded a contingent of Libyan army trucks and personnel carriers after it entered the town in a battle that killed as many as nine Libyan soldiers and four rebels.
Nineteen days after it began with spirited demonstrations in the eastern city of Benghazi, the Libyan uprising has veered sharply from the pattern of relatively quick and nonviolent upheavals that ousted the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. Instead, the rebellion here has become mired in a drawn-out ground campaign between two relatively unprofessional and loosely organized forces — the Libyan Army and the rebels — that is exacting high civilian casualties and appears likely to drag on for some time.
That bloody standoff was evident on Saturday in Zawiyah, the northwestern city seized by rebels a week ago, where the government’s attacks raised puzzling questions about its strategy. For the second day in a row its forces punched into the city, then pulled back to maintain a siege from the perimeter. Hours later, they advanced and retreated again.
By the end of the day, both sides claimed control of the city.
Foreign journalists were unable to cross military checkpoints to evaluate reports of what Zawiyah residents called “a massacre.”