Children put on roof of bunker to protect Gaddafi
Fairground installed as cynical 'human shield'
Published 15/05/2011 | 05:00
EVEN for an Arab dictator, it is a cynical variant of the 'human shield' gambit. On the roof of his Tripoli command bunker, Colonel Gaddafi has installed a children's fairground.
Forty feet away from the crater made on Thursday by a Nato bomb, boys and girls played on a roundabout shaped like a giant tea set.
We had been brought deep inside Gaddafi's leadership compound, which takes up at least a full square mile of Tripoli city centre, to witness what the regime called "Nato's madness" in attacking women and children.
But the trip succeeded only in showing that if anyone has put civilians in harm's way, it is the Libyan government. Also near the top of the bunker, which is covered with grass, civilians have been brought to live in tents, ready to sacrifice themselves for their leader.
"This is a place of recreation, a public park where the people of Tripoli often come," insisted Moussa Ibrahim, the government spokesman. But this "public park" is reached by passing through four rings of 15-foot blast walls. Armed guards stand at the perimeter, moving on any passerby who might mistake it for somewhere to throw a frisbee.
The regime's demand for human shields is not surprising. As the Libyan uprising approaches its three-month anniversary, it is increasingly clear that the stalemate can only be broken in Tripoli.
As the rebels get bogged down in back-and-forth fighting, Nato has shifted its focus from assisting rebel troops to bombing 'command and control' and other targets in Tripoli itself.
In the first four days of last week, according to Nato figures, alliance jets struck 39 "key targets" in and around Tripoli, compared with just eight the previous week. Targets since Monday have included seven 'command and control' facilities in the capital, compared with just three over the previous 10 days.
"Nobody can be in any doubt, whatever their denials, that Nato is trying to kill Gaddafi," said one senior regime official. "This is illegal under international law and the the UN resolution."
Amid mounting fears that the conflict might end in stalemate, UK armed forces chief General Richards has called on Nato governments backing the military offensive against Gaddafi to increase the range of targets the alliance's warplanes are allowed to attack.
Strict restrictions imposed by Nato member states mean that its forces can attack only targets that are deemed to pose a direct threat to Libyan civilians, such as tanks and artillery. But Gen Richards wants the rules of engagement changed so that direct attacks can be launched against the infrastructure propping up Colonel Gaddafi's regime.
In the medina of Tripoli, a picture of defiance to Gaddafi emerges. I slipped my Libyan minder, and within minutes had spoken to three people who despise Gaddafi and want him gone. "He is mad," said a man, who had checked to see if my passport was indeed British. "He has ruined the country."
Another trader said: "Sarkozy, Cameron, they are doing what we all want," he said. "We don't mind the bombing at all. We want the government to change."
Yet it is far from over for the colonel. After his TV appearance this week prompted an airstrike on his compound, Gaddafi has now been reduced to audio-only. But he still taunts the alliance, promising on Friday that he was in "a place you cannot reach". On Friday, Nato may have made its first mistake, with the regime claiming that it killed 11 imams in a guesthouse in the city of Brega.
For the moment, Tripoli waits. The regime's best hope is that Nato will get bored and take their forces away. That could come to pass. But the significance of last week's attacks, if they're sustained, implies it will not be the case.