Posts Tagged ‘Tripoli’
The memories will live for ever. The screaming 64-year-old woman castigating a group of young Libyan rebels for their cowardice as they sheltered from sniper fire outside her front door. The motorcyclist wearing a T-shirt with Barack Obama’s face on it, an assault rifle slung nonchalantly over his shoulder as he sped towards the capital to the thud of mortars and the clatter of machinegun fire.
The jubilant scenes as rebel fighters stormed the capital at night to the cries of ululating women and men who set off fireworks in the street. The tears of joy rolling down the cheeks of Libyan rebels who had just routed Colonel Gadaffi’s troops in the heart of the capital.
Those were heady days, watching anti-Gadaffi forces launch their lightening assault on Tripoli. It was hard not to get swept up in the euphoria. The few photographs I have of that time show a young reporter beaming a wide, adrenaline-fuelled grin, often mimicking the ecstatic rebels around him by raising his hand in the “V” for victory salute.
During the vicious assault on Gadaffi’s palace in the heart of Tripoli, a sniper’s bullet thwacked into my helmet, knocking me to the floor. Friends and family were amazed that I continued to report that day alongside the rebels until they got inside the palace. A veteran Reuters correspondent I met later said: “You’re a Sunday paper, Miles. What are you doing getting shot in the head on a Tuesday?”
That wasn’t the point. I was watching history unfold around me: one of the most despotic regimes was about to crumble and I had a front-row seat. But, even as the celebrations began, there were already portent snapshots of the potential trouble that lay ahead.
I watched one Libyan rebel, who had risked his life to smuggle me into his home when Gadaffi still controlled Tripoli months earlier, carry off a stack of shiny new briefcases from an arms dump inside Gadaffi’s palace. The briefcases contained new sniper rifles. Thousands of other civilians joined him in plundering the weapons, including teenage boys.
“This is Gadaffi’s last gift to us,” one rebel said as he looked on in horror. Tripoli is now brimming with the guns that were looted that day.
Then there is the psychological toll. Read the rest of this entry »
MI5 asked Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s secret services for regular updates on what terrorist suspects were revealing under interrogation in Libyan prisons, where torture was routine.
The security service also agreed to trade information with Libyan spymasters on 50 British-based Libyans judged to be a threat to Gadaffi’s regime.
The disclosures come from intelligence documents left lying around in the ruins of the British embassy in Tripoli for anyone to find.
They include an MI5 paper marked “UK/Libya eyes only secret”, which shows that the service provided Gadaffi’s spies with a trove of intelligence about Libyan dissidents in London, Cardiff, Birmingham and Manchester.
Other documents seen by The Sunday Times in the abandoned offices of British and Libyan officials reveal that:
*The Ministry of Defence invited the dictator’s sons Saadi and Khamis Gadaffi, whose forces have massacred civilians during Libya’s revolution, to a combat display at SAS headquarters and a dinner at the Cavalry and Guards Club in Mayfair.
*Tony Blair helped another son, Saif Gadaffi, with his PhD thesis, beginning a personal letter with the words “Dear Engineer Saif”.
*The Foreign Office planned to use Prince Andrew in a secret strategy to secure the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, from prison in Scotland and offset the risk of retaliation if he died in jail. In fact, Megrahi was released anyway.
The cache of documents shows how close the governments of both Blair and Gordon Brown were to a brutal regime that was overthrown last month when pro-democracy rebels seized Tripoli.
Nowhere is this closeness more evident than in the intelligence sphere. The MI5 paper for Gadaffi’s security services contains detailed information about members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a militant dissident outfit with cells in Britain.
The document, prepared ahead of an MI5 visit to Tripoli in 2005, formally requested that Libyan intelligence should provide access to detainees held by secret police and to “timely debriefs” of interrogations.
It added: “The more timely [the] information the better … Such intelligence is most valuable when it is current. It is notable that LIFG members in the UK become aware of the detention of members overseas within a relatively short period.” Read the rest of this entry »
Ministers wanted Prince Andrew to help persuade Colonel Gadaffi not to “exact vengeance” on Britain if the Lockerbie bomber died in a Scottish prison.
Secret papers seen by The Sunday Times reveal that the Duke of York’s relationship with the dictator was seen as a key plank in a strategy to facilitate the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi or to avoid violent repercussions should he die from cancer while in jail.
The documents undermine claims by Gordon Brown’s government that it played no role in trying to secure Megrahi’s return to Tripoli. They underline the threat his death would pose to the UK’s commercial interests in Libya and to the safety of British citizens.
The plan to exploit Prince Andrew’s contacts with Gadaffi is contained in a letter from Rob Dixon, head of the Foreign Office’s North Africa team, to David Miliband, then foreign secretary, and minister Bill Rammell.
Until now only censored versions of the sensitive Foreign Office papers on the release of the Lockerbie bomber have been released by the government.
However, unredacted papers discovered in Tripoli reveal that Gadaffi wanted Megrahi returned “at all costs”.
One memo from Dixon, dated January 22, 2009, states: “We also believe that Libya might seek to exact vengeance on the UK in the event of an unsuccessful application to transfer Megrahi.” Read the rest of this entry »
Six months ago Mehdi al-Harati, an Arabic teacher, said goodbye to his wife and four children in Dublin and went off to war. Last week I was alongside him and his men — many of them from Britain — as they prepared to storm the Bastille of the Libyan revolution.
In quick succession both he and I were hit by snipers’ bullets, but we survived and raced on towards Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s heavily fortified palace in central Tripoli.
The high walls of the Bab al-Aziziya compound embodied the 42 years of oppression that Gadaffi had inflicted on his country.
“Sheikh” Mehdi’s 350-strong brigade of Libyan exiles, buzzing with the accents of Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, were determined to be the first insurgents to breach the walls as the regime tottered last week.
The Tripoli Brigade, as they called themselves, had trained for four months in Libya’s western mountains with French, American and Qatari special forces for this moment.
I watched the brown-bearded rebel commander — a compact and strong figure but also a diabetic with a heart problem — sprint up a narrow alleyway under heavy sniper fire, waving his men forwards. As the 38-year-old raced towards a watchtower guarding the compound’s entrance, a bullet smashed into his ankle, knocking him to the ground.
Picking himself up, Mehdi ducked into a side street. His fighters crowded round him, screaming over the radio for an ambulance to come forward from behind the rebel front line. Word quickly spread among the rebel ranks, deflating morale.
The medics sped through the streets, braving barrages of gunfire. They wound a bandage around Mehdi’s ankle and told him to stay back. But within half an hour he was back on the front line where his men could see him alive and fighting again.
As he barked commands over his radio on the opposite side of the road, a bullet smacked into my helmet, sending me flying into the dirt. I checked for blood and was surprised to find none.
Soon afterwards another bullet knocked the camera out of the hands of Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times photographer. He was also unhurt. We were lucky. But for the Libyans, the battle for Bab al-Aziziya was going to be brutal.
The bullet clanged into my helmet, smacking the Kevlar into the left side of my skull and throwing me to the ground.
The shock of being floored by something I couldn’t see confused me: it took a few seconds to realise I’d been hit in the head. I could hear a metallic ringing in my ears.
My first thoughts were: “I’m still alive but I’m dying, slowly bleeding out; my brains must be on the floor. Perhaps the bullet only went through a bit of my head and that’s why I can see and think.”
The image of a messy puddle of brain matter next to me flashed through my mind. These thoughts were quickly replaced with the realisation that I couldn’t feel any pain, apart from a thumping headache that I’d had all day from having only one contact lens. My next thought was that I was still thinking. My brain was still working.
That thought was quickly replaced with another one: “Perhaps this is what happens when you die.”
I ran both my hands inside my helmet, checking for blood and praying I wouldn’t find any. This was tricky because the chin strap was so tight that I couldn’t get my hands all the way inside.
It took a few more swipes to confirm that I wasn’t bleeding from my skull and that my brains weren’t in the sand: my hands were covered in black grit and dirt.
No blood. Good. The fear of dying, followed by the elation of being alive, made me forget where I was for a moment. Then I looked up to see a Libyan rebel gaping at me, frozen to the spot in shock.
Other rebels had fled when they saw the round hit me. I could see their feet racing away as I lay there.
I realised I needed to get up. Bullets were still flying overhead; splashes of dirt kicked up around me. I dragged myself up and ran towards cover, racing around the corner of a building, where I leant against a wall, trying to get my breath back.
I took my helmet off and checked my head again for blood. Nothing. Rebel fighters lined up against a wall on the opposite side of the alleyway looked on impassively.
It was my fault. The Sunday Times photographer, Paul Conroy, and I had been crouching down behind a red gate on the side of a road leading towards Colonel Gadaffi’s palace.
We’d seen machinegun fire pummel the gate 30 minutes earlier. The bullets had ripped fist-sized holes in the thin metal. But rebel soldiers had made mad dashes through the now open gate, racing across the road to the relative safety of a mosque opposite.
We moved from our position, attaching ourselves to another band of rebels preparing to make the dash. We paused at the gate.
Rebel pick-up trucks drove up the road from our right, blasting deafening barrages of anti-aircraft fire from their mounted guns at Gadaffi’s palace. The trucks were still taking small arms fire, sending rounds pinging down the road.
“I’ll go first and you follow,” said Paul. I nodded. Paul timed his sprint to coincide with the next barrage of anti-aircraft fire, which he hoped would pin down the Gadaffi shooters long enough for him to race to the mosque. As he made cover, the rebel 4ft behind him had his arm blown off by a bullet.
I knew the gate was poor cover. I got up to make the sprint but a group of rebels dashed out ahead of me.
I didn’t want to be the last man in the group, fearing that Gadaffi’s snipers may have honed their aim by the time they saw me sprinting. So I watched a few rebel pick-up trucks race by and waited for the incoming rounds to die down. Another group of rebels joined me by the gate.
That’s when the bullet knocked me to the floor. It must have pierced the gate to my left, slowing down the round just enough to prevent it from passing through the Kevlar and into my skull.
Paul didn’t see me get hit: he was too busy treating the rebel whose arm had been blown off.
He found me smoking a cigarette and drinking water on the curb, talking to a rebel in a pink T-shirt who was trying to persuade me to go to an ambulance around the corner.
“What happened to you?” Paul asked.
“I got shot in the head,” I replied, grinning stupidly.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Okay, well get up and stop whingeing,” he laughed.
We found more water in the mosque, glugged it down and went back up to the road. This time we took a left before the gate and sprinted over rubble and past a destroyed house to cover.
We continued pushing into Gadaffi’s compound with the rebels. About an hour later, a bullet hit Paul’s camera and sent it flying from his hands.
As we came out of the palace, we bumped into Reuters correspondent Peter Graff. “You work for a Sunday Miles. What the hell are you doing getting shot in the head on a Tuesday?” He said.
Back at base that night, Paul dug the bullet out of my helmet with his knife. The round had gone in at an angle — another reason why it had failed to pierce the armour.
Paul tried to persuade me to give him the helmet. “Lightning doesn’t strike twice. You’re 20m times less likely to be hit in the head after that. So statistically it’s better for me to have the helmet,” he said.
This comes from the same man who later reasoned that the chances of discovering a bomb on a plane are about fifteen million to one; the chances of having two bombs on a plane are about 75 million to one; so therefore statistically it’s five times safer to bring you’re own bomb onto a plane because the chances of two people carrying a bomb onto a plane are pretty thin.
I ignored his twisted logic; I’m keeping the helmet.