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Libya's capital paralyzed by fear of Gadhafi militias

TRIPOLI, Libya — The mourning tent was set up in Tripoli's Fashloum neighborhood Thursday to receive grieving friends and neighbors of a 56-year-old man shot to death by Moammar Gadhafi's militiamen a week ago. No one dared show up. Paying condolences to a slain protester is dangerous in the Libyan capital.

A wave of arrests, killings and disappearances has terrorized Tripoli in a deadly crackdown by Gadhafi's regime as his opponents try to organize new protests today.

Bodies of people who vanished have been dumped in the street. Gunmen in SUVs have descended on homes in the night to drag away suspected protesters, identified by video footage of protests that militiamen have pored through to spot faces. Other militiamen have searched hospitals for wounded to take away.

Residents say they are under the watchful eyes of Gadhafi militias prowling the streets. They go under numerous names — Internal Security, the Central Support Force, the People's Force, the People's Guards and the Brigade of Mohammed al-Magarif, the head of Gadhafi's personal guard — and they are all searching for suspected protesters.

Residents said calls for new protests today after weekly Muslim prayers were being passed by word of mouth in several districts of the capital.

Whether crowds turn out will depend on the depth of fear among Gadhafi opponents. Today could prove to be a test of the extent of Gadhafi's control. The capital is crucial to the Libyan leader, his strongest remaining bastion after the uprising that began on Feb. 15 broke the entire eastern half of Libya out of his control and even swept over some cities in the west near Tripoli.

The clampdown in Tripoli has left some yearning for outside help, the Associated Press reported. A Libyan writer in his 70s was quoted as saying that he rejects "foreign intervention" in Libya's upheaval — but wouldn't mind "a powerful strike" on Gadhafi's headquarters to stop further bloodshed.

"There must be some sort of action as soon as possible. Time is running and Libyans can't wait any longer," the writer said, according to the news service.

He, like other residents, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear they too would be hunted down, the Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, forces loyal to Gadhafi launched renewed airstrikes against two key rebel-held towns Thursday, a day after poorly armed citizens repelled a major government assault.

And in Washington, President Barack Obama issued his strongest condemnation of Gadhafi to date and announced he was sending U.S. military planes to help repatriate Egyptians who have fled to the Tunisian border.

He did not rule out imposing a "no-fly zone" over Libya to ground Gadhafi's air force. But he stressed that any such decision needs to be made in consultation with NATO and the international community.

"We will continue to send a clear message: The violence must stop," Obama said. "Moammar Gadhafi has lost legitimacy to lead, and he must leave. ... The aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy and dignity must be met."

Obama said he had directed the Pentagon to prepare for a full range of possible military options in connection with the crisis. Asked at a news conference about whether the United States would support sending warplanes over the country to keep the Libyan air force from attacking rebels, creating a no-fly zone, the president said that was one of the options being considered.

Among America's NATO allies, France and Britain expressed some support for the idea, while Germany said it was opposed.

Obama said that in addition to sending military aircraft to ferry Egyptians who have fled to Tunisia to get home, he had authorized the Agency for International Development, an arm of the State Department, to charter civilian aircraft to help refugees return to other countries.

The president said he was sending humanitarian assistance teams to the border with Libya to help "address the urgent needs of the Libyan people."

Obama spoke after Brega, a key oil port, was hit Thursday morning by at least three powerful airstrikes. There was also a strike near an army munitions storage unit just outside Ajdabiya, about 40 miles away. No casualties were reported in the strikes.

About 28 miles west of Brega, rebels clashed with Gadhafi loyalists Thursday in the Mediterranean coastal town of Bishra. Truckloads of rebel fighters left Benghazi to help their allies in Bishra.

In the Hague, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court said he would investigate Gadhafi and his inner circle for allegations of crimes against humanity.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo vowed there would be "no impunity in Libya" and said he was contacting former Libyan officials and army officers to determine who would have ordered attacks on peaceful demonstrators. He said he is seeking video and photographic evidence.

"We are not saying who is responsible yet," Moreno-Ocampo said. "Today is the start of the investigation."

Also Thursday, officials said a Dutch helicopter crew attempting to evacuate people from Libya had been captured over the weekend by forces loyal to Gadhafi. The three marines and their helicopter are still being held by Libyan authorities, a Dutch Defense Ministry spokesman said. He said officials are in "intensive negotiations" to secure their release.

Information from the Associated Press, Washington Post and New York Times was used in this report.

Libya's capital paralyzed by fear of Gadhafi militias 03/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 3, 2011 9:44pm]
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