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Rebels wage a secret night-time war on the streets of Tripoli
The ammunition of a rebel fighter is seen as he arrives at Green Square in the Kish, Benghazi July 6, 2011, from all the freed areas of Libya to demonstrate against Moammar Gadhafi and his regime.
Photograph by: Esam Al-Fetori, Reuters
A covert guerrilla war, waged by underground rebel cells and fought mainly at night, is increasingly challenging the Gadhafi regime's hold over Tripoli.
Residents of the Libyan capital have spoken of a surge in drive-by shootings, attacks on security checkpoints and frequent gun battles once darkness falls.
Even as it fights opposition forces on three fronts to the east and south of the capital, the Libyan government has insisted that it has pacified Tripoli, presenting it as a bastion of unswerving loyalty to Col Moammar Gadhafi.
By day, the city has a veneer of normality and pro-regime loyalty, a front that government minders are keen to emphasize when guiding Western reporters on heavily-chaperoned tours.
By night, however, mysterious bursts of gunfire can be heard on a far more frequent basis than the sound of falling NATO bombs.
Minders attribute the sounds to loyal citizens shooting in the air in celebration, a partly plausible claim after Col Gadhafi doled out weapons and encouraged Libyans to root out dissidents.
But sometimes there are clearly exchanges of fire, including one in the early hours on Tuesday that lasted nearly an hour.
Such violence is thought predominantly to occur in poorer suburbs such as Souq al-Juma and Feshloom, as well as in the Greater Tripoli district of Tajoura, places that were the scene of anti-Gadhafi demonstrations in February, when the uprising was in its infancy.
The regime feels confident enough to take reporters to these areas, and residents, mindful of government chaperones hovering nearby, dutifully proclaim their love for Col Gadhafi and express their hope that he reigns "forever".
But when The Daily Telegraph reached Souq al-Juma after giving minders the slip, it discovered a rather different story.
Unlike in richer suburbs, most shops here are not adorned with portraits of Gadhafi, and small acts of defiance, from graffiti to decorating pets in revolutionary colours, have been reported.
Yet many in the area seemed reluctant to talk openly. One resident said: "It is too dangerous. People are afraid to talk because there are secret police and informers everywhere."
Only those supportive of Col Gadhafi spoke freely, although even they conceded that "30 per cent" opposed the regime. Others put the numbers at "about half and half".
But on one issue there seemed to be consensus: at night, the shabby streets are a very dangerous place to be.
Beside a DVD stall blaring music, a young Gadhafi supporter told of nightly attacks by rebels on the security forces, who arrive in force after dusk. "They drive past in cars and shoot out of the windows at the police," he said.
One of the most violent points is an intersection near a bridge linking the suburb to the rest of Tripoli. It was here, residents said, that 10 people were killed when protests early in the uprising were suppressed.
A checkpoint there has come under frequent attack by rebel gunmen in recent weeks, according to residents whose homes overlook the area.
"It happens nearly every night," one said. "One night, there were four bodies. They were quickly taken away and the wounded disappeared."
The extent of the rebellion in Tripoli's suburbs is unclear. Opposition officials in rebel-held areas speak of more than a dozen active cells, operating independently of each other.
Rebels in the Nafusa Mountains, south west of Tripoli, made a fresh advance yesterday after apparently being re-armed by Nato weapons drops. But, like their colleagues to the east, they have largely been unable to capture territory outside opposition strongholds.
Frustrated opposition leaders hope that an attritional underground war in Tripoli can pin down regime forces that could be deployed elsewhere, while demonstrating how tenuous Col Gadhafi's hold over the capital really is.
The violence does not seem to be turning people against the rebels. Instead the growing financial depredations appear to be bolstering resentment of the regime.
Food prices have soared, queues last for days and banks have restricted withdrawals to just $1,150 a month, undermining a tacit agreement between Col Gadhafi and many of his people under which they swapped financial security for democratic freedoms.
As the situation worsens, a growing number are fleeing the capital. Those who have stayed say they fear the conflict will explode into full-scale bloodletting.
© Copyright (c) The Daily Telegraph
The ammunition of a rebel fighter is seen as he arrives at Green Square in the Kish, Benghazi July 6, 2011, from all the freed areas of Libya to demonstrate against Moammar Gadhafi and his regime.
Photograph by: Esam Al-Fetori, Reuters