Surreal atmosphere in Tripoli as allies smash Gadaffi forces

The Sunday Times

Hundreds of allied airstrikes smashed into their targets across Libya last night. But in the capital Tripoli, a stronghold for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, men, women and children loyal to their leader danced to Libyan hip-hop music.

At Colonel Gaddafi’s residence, a surreal carnival atmosphere gripped the dictator’s supporters, who waved green flags and placards that read: “We are waiting for you and so are the fishes”.

Some young men had clambered on top of a statue depicting a giant gold fist crushing an American warplane in its palm. Many said they were prepared to give their lives for Colonel Gadaffi, who has ruled for more than 40 years, if his residence was struck.

But when word of the bombs spread through the crowd, the human shield thinned out as people rushed to get home.

Only a hardcore of loyal fans stayed on, waiting for their leader to make a speech from the balcony of a building partially destroyed by American air-strikes in 1986. But they waited in vain. The Libyan leader never appeared. Later that night, he addressed the nation by telephone from an undisclosed location.

“We will not leave our land and we will liberate it,” the Libyan leader said in a speech on state television. “We will remain alive and you will all die.”

State television also reported on Sunday that Gaddafi planned to open the country’s arms depots to supporters loyal to his regime. He will, he said, arm one million ordinary Libyans in an effort to counter allied air power, which will likely continue to smash his forces.

Residents and doctors in Misrata, the only western city still under rebel control, said on Sunday afternoon that Gaddafi had continued to shell the city with tanks and heavy artillery despite allied bombs striking a government airbase there.

One doctor, who wanted his identity kept secret, said that snipers were on rooftops, preventing staff from returning to a make-shift hospital to treat dozens injured in the fighting.

“They are shooting at anything that moves. It is making it impossible for people to move around,” he said.

The government claimed that an air strike destroyed the city’s power station last night. But rebels said government tanks had bombarded the station the night before, cutting power to the city 170km north of Tripoli.

British Tornado jets dropped bombs over the capital itself early on Sunday morning, apparently striking air defences around the city as arcs of red tracer fire from anti-aircraft guns shot into the sky.

In the east of the country French warplanes pounded government positions along the main road into Benghazi – the rebel stronghold –, destroying 14 government tanks, 20 armoured troops carriers, two trucks with multiple rocket launchers and dozens of pick up trucks.

The strikes have halted Gadaffi’s advance on Benghazi, which looked like it might fall on Saturday morning as soldiers loyal to the leader launched forays into the city.

The Libyan government claimed that the strikes, which included a barrage of 112 Tomahawk cruise missiles, killed 64 people and wounded more than 100. The claim could not be independently verified as reporters in the capital have been prevented from leaving their hotel to visit the city’s hospitals.

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