Many Fled Tripoli After U.S. Raid : Libyan Capital Still Tense Despite Kadafi Assurances
Nearly three days after the U.S. air strike on the Libyan capital, a tense mood still prevails here despite the reappearance of Col. Moammar Kadafi on television and his assurances to Libyans that the crisis “is over.”
The streets remained mostly deserted Thursday, and all but a handful of shops were closed.
With few exceptions, the only pedestrians seen on the streets were young revolutionary committee members on patrol. One of the exceptions was the group of mourners at a funeral procession that may have been for one of the victims of Tuesday’s U.S. air strike against targets here and in Benghazi, 400 miles east of the capital.
Hospital officials and other sources have reported that the raids killed as many as 70 people in Tripoli, most of them civilians.
Diplomats said one reason the capital remained largely shuttered is that many Libyans fled the city after the American attack to seek shelter in farms and tents in the countryside.
A Western businessman returning from the airport Thursday afternoon said he saw cars carrying Libyan families heading back into the city. But with Libyan radio incorrectly reporting renewed American air strikes on Wednesday, many residents of the city of 1.5 million were apparently still staying away.
Their unease was shared by the large foreign community in Libya, especially by the 40,000 to 50,000 Westerners.
European embassies reported receiving numerous calls from their nationals inquiring about flights out of the country and some Western envoys were reportedly holding preliminary discussions about possible evacuation plans.
In Rome, the Foreign Ministry confirmed that Italy was considering the evacuation of its 8,000 citizens here.
The foreign community also includes an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Americans, most of whom live and work in desert oil fields far from the capital.
Tripoli International Airport, about 15 miles south of the capital, reopened in the morning for an outbound flight but closed and then reopened throughout the day. An inbound flight from Malta was canceled while a Lufthansa German Airlines flight from Frankfurt was reportedly turned back after it took off.
Libyan officials have given assurances that the foreign workers here are still welcome and will be protected. One ambassador said the Foreign Ministry had offered to provide embassies with guards if they request them.
However, the tension that exists in the foreign community was not relieved by a report that a British citizen had been detained in Benghazi on Wednesday. Officials refused to comment on the report, and no information was available.
British citizens here have been made to feel particularly uncomfortable by Libyan denunciations of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for allowing the attacking U.S. bombers to take off from bases in Britain.
A number of scattered incidents kept tensions high in the city and prevented any return to normal life. Among them was a large explosion heard shortly after 2 p.m. Libyan officials said the blast was caused by the detonation of an unexploded bomb from the American raid. They warned that there could be further such explosions.
Reports of automatic weapons fire Tuesday and Wednesday brought vehement denials from Libyan officials that street clashes were taking place between mutinous army troops and Kadafi’s Revolutionary Guards. Officials attributed the fire to Libyan gunners shooting into the air to ward off more U.S. planes. There were no reports of automatic weapons fire Thursday.
As on the past two nights, bursts of anti-aircraft fire reverberated across the capital just after 9 p.m. and the city was put under a blackout for the third straight night. No planes were heard overhead, however, and observers said that the firing appeared to have been prearranged, noting that it began at precisely the same time as on the previous night.
The nightly bursts of anti-aircraft fire and repeated Libyan reports that more U.S. planes have been sighted have kept the population on edge.
State of ‘War’
Indeed, Libyan officials assigned to watch over visiting foreign journalists have been talking since Tuesday of the state of “war” that exists between Libya and the United States.
But, when Kadafi, looking and sounding exhausted, appeared on television late Wednesday night, he sought to assure Libyans that the crisis was over and told them to go back to work. “It’s all over. Turn everything on, the lights, the TVs. Go back to normal,” he said.
That brief television appearance ended two days of intense speculation about his fate after the raids, which destroyed a frequently used residence of the Libyan leader, among other targets.
Kadafi Quiet, Restrained
American network television technicians among the visiting journalists here said the broadcast appeared to have been live. Kadafi, speaking in quiet and uncharacteristically restrained tones, also mentioned anti-U.S. demonstrations that occurred in Sudan earlier Wednesday.
However, his appearance did not entirely allay concerns over the situation following rumors, denied by Libyan officials, of tensions within the armed forces. Diplomats said they were not sure who was in control of the country.
“The security situation is quiet now, but we still don’t know what will happen in the future,” said one diplomat.
“There’s so much misinformation and so many rumors going around that nobody knows what’s going to happen,” said another. “It’s impossible to get or confirm information.”
Kadafi Visits Wounded
The Libyans, in what appeared to be an effort to put such speculation to rest, showed Kadafi on television again Thursday visiting wounded victims of the air strikes in the hospital. However, the footage appeared to have been taped. It was not clear how fresh it was although in response to queries, Libyan television officials said it was filmed on Thursday.
One senior ambassador, speaking strictly on the condition that he not be identified, said he was also puzzled that other senior members of Libya’s revolutionary leadership had not been in public view. Most intriguing, the diplomat said, has been the absence from view of Abdel-Salam Jalloud, regarded by many as the second-most powerful man in the leadership.
Jalloud, who is said to control the Revolutionary Guards, had assumed an increasingly high profile since a government reorganization in early March and a subsequent confrontation with the U.S. Navy in the Gulf of Sidra.
“We still do not have an explanation yet of all the incidents” that have taken place over the past few days, the diplomat said. “The situation is still extremely fluid, and I would not bet on the outcome.”