Sunday 18 March 2018

Tripoli's new unease as Gaddafi end draws near

Bombing of capital intensifies as rebels move to within 30 miles

Matthew Price , in Tripoli

First came the sound of an aircraft. Then the shrill whistle of a missile slicing through the quiet of a perfect blue summer sky.

The explosion boomed across this part of the city. This one didn't rattle the windows of my hotel room. It will though have rattled the residents of Tripoli.

There have been more strikes on Libya's capital in the last two days than in the last two weeks. If this is psychological warfare, it is working.

Rebel forces are just 30 miles to the west, the Zawiya oil terminal has fallen, so too the road link to the outside world. It feels as if the noose is tightening.

Outwardly Tripoli appears normal. At night in Green Square I watched as loyalists listened to a live band. "Libya, oh Libya," sung to a reggae beat. Engineers were working under floodlights, putting up a giant scaffold that will support the "biggest picture in the world" of Colonel Gaddafi -- angled up to the sky as a taunt to the Nato pilots.

Drive around though and the growing unease is clear. At a checkpoint local 'volunteers' shouted for our vehicle to stop. "Who's inside?" Our government minders explained and we moved on. On to the next checkpoint and more questions. It wasn't threatening, but they are on the lookout for the "spies" they believe are precipitating the fall of Gaddafi.

Official Tripoli remains firmly behind "The Leader".

But among the few citizens I have spoken to -- and lower level government officials I have access to -- there's a nervousness that was not there before. In recent days some government employees have been asking foreign journalists for information about the situation -- that's a sign of how isolated they feel.

I've had contact with several international officials here, who talk of this being the end game. Some even say it will all be over within a week. There's nothing I've seen to suggest people are beginning to stockpile food.

Shopkeepers, though, talk of running out of supplies sooner rather than later. Power cuts are alarming people. They do affect the water supply.

There are fears that if this continues for long, there could be a humanitarian crisis.

And what of Gaddafi himself? Apart from a crackly telephone address there's been nothing from him in recent days. One Libyan official I spoke to told me there were murmurings of criticism against his eldest son, Saif al-Islam, though whether this goes right to the top is impossible to know. Some say Gaddafi is planning to flee, but the consensus is for now that he would not do that.

For now I sit and wait. In a five-star 'prison' where the government insists foreign journalists stay so they can keep an eye on us. Until the rebel advance on Zawiya I was able to pop across the road to the small shop that sells sweets and water. No longer. Tripoli feels cut off. So too do I. Held for the moment at The Leader's pleasure it would seem. But for how long?


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