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Libyan opposition reportedly seizes key western city

The popular uprising against Moammar Kadafi expanded into an oil-rich area of western Libya long considered one of his strongholds, leaving the long-time leader increasingly isolated and in danger of encirclement as he fights for survival.

Calm was returning to a stretch of eastern Libya seized by the opposition. Residents were restoring basic services in the country’s second-largest city, Benghazi, and setting up informal governing structures.

“The uprising is over. Eastern Libya has all fallen from Kadafi’s power,” said Ashraf Sadaga, who helps oversee a mosque in the coastal city of Derna. At a rally there, one young man held a sign addressing Kadafi: “The people have dug your grave,” it said.

But reports painted a grim picture of western Libya. Terrified residents of the capital, Tripoli, said pro-government militias rampaged through some residential areas, firing automatic weapons from pickup trucks and Land Cruisers.

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The fall of Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city and located little more than 100 miles east of Tripoli, as well as a smaller town in the far west meant that the rebellion inspired by revolts in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt now spans nearly the length of the country.

Crowds fought loyalists in Sabratha, about 40 miles west of Tripoli. The opposition also claimed control of Zuwarah, about 30 miles from the Tunisian border in the west, after local army units sided with the protesters and police fled.

Kadafi’s traditional backing from powerful tribal leaders also is starting to unravel, analysts said, marking a potential turning point. Key among them is the Warfallah tribe, one of Libya’s largest, which is based south of Tripoli. It announced it was joining the movement to oust him.

Residents of Tripoli said the government sent out cellphone text messages urging people to go back to work, insisting life was returning to normal. But protesters reportedly also used texts to urge police, members of the army and others to march on Friday.

“We don’t know who is in charge,” Najah Kablan, a teacher, said by telephone. “It is very frightening.”

Tripoli residents hunkered down to wait out the crisis, as well a heavy afternoon rainstorm. Many shops and offices were shuttered, and heavily armed troops patrolled instead of police.

Mamouja Maftai, a 46-year-old engineer also reached by telephone, said that local police had fled from his middle-class district, about five miles from downtown, after Kadafi gave a fiery speech Tuesday night and called on supporters to go “house to house” to crush the rebellion.

In their place, he said, pro-government militias and other loyalists were terrorizing the area. He said they refused to let families collect bodies and arrange burials of those killed in earlier clashes.

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“If we try to pick up the bodies, they shoot at us,” Maftai said, adding that two soldiers killed one of his friends and wounded another during protests on Monday.

“They shot the man next to me in the head,” he said. “I took him to the hospital, but he was already dead. The other man was shot in the ribs. My car is still covered with blood.”

Maftai said the two soldiers fired at the demonstrators “until they ran out of bullets. Then the people surrounded them until they surrendered. People took them away, I don’t know where.”

He said he saw troops firing .50-caliber heavy machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades in clashes with protesters. He said military helicopters brought in troops, but he didn’t see warplanes or helicopters fire on crowds, as others have reported.

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Conditions were far calmer in eastern cities that already have fallen to the opposition, such as Derna, a coastal community of 100,000 people long considered a citadel of conservative Islam and a hotbed of anti-Kadafi sentiment.

On Feb. 20, when Kadafi’s troops flew into Labraq, about 45 miles away, airport workers called men in nearby towns to surround the airport. The civilians raided police stations and army barracks to get weapons, and a battle raged for three days, said Faraj Saad, a police officer who defected.

Six men from Derna were killed. They and five others who were shot during protests are buried by the Prophet’s Companions Mosque. All were young, aged 12 to 21. More bodies lay in a hospital morgue several miles away.

The protesters held about 20 soldiers at the mosque for several days, but they were moved elsewhere for their safety.

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Away from the city center, several government buildings were burned. On the second day of protests, after Friday prayers, the police station was set afire. Graffiti scrawled on the walls called for Kadafi’s resignation.

“It was a peaceful people’s revolution that was faced with violence,” said Hani Fadallah, 35, a radio sports reporter. “If you are faced with violence you will respond with violence.”

Saad, the police officer, said he went to work on the first day of the protests but once he saw innocent people being killed, he left. Many other officers, he said, left as well.

“We joined the people,” he said. “I changed my police uniform and put on civilian clothing and joined the people.”

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A 2008 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli released by WikiLeaks described Libya’s eastern provinces as “a region not known for its love” of Kadafi or his regime.

“Eastern Libya had suffered until very recently from a lack of investment and government resources, part of a campaign by the Al Kadafi regime to keep the area poor and, theoretically, less likely to develop as a viable alternative locus of power to Tripoli,” the cable reads, quoting an unidentified Libyan politician.

It adds that people in the east had not benefited from government largesse and economic reforms “to the extent that those in the western province” had.

Reached by telephone in Benghazi, consultant Ahmed Elrayes said, “Everything is safe.”

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“The streets are clean. Bread, water, all supplies are available. Everything is in harmony. The people and police are protecting banks and companies. The police began appearing in the streets yesterday. They are working with the people and families are protecting one another,” he said.

He said residents feared two days ago that Benghazi would be attacked by fighter jets or naval ships, but that had not happened.

Two Libyan air force pilots parachuted from their Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jet and let it crash rather than carry out orders to bomb Benghazi, according to the Libyan news website Quryna. It wasn’t clear when the crash occurred.

The website said one of the pilots was Ali Omar Kadafi, a member of the strongman’s tribe, , said Farag Al Maghrabi. He said he saw the pilots and the wreckage of the jet, which crashed outside the oil hub, Port Brega.

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Local army units, which defected, are now guarding the Benghazi airport, Elrayes said.

“We don’t know what to expect,” he said. “No one in the east wants to divide the country. We have families spread all over. We’re all Libyans.”

“But everyone wants a change,” he added. “We saw in recent days what great potential we have. Young people were fighting against machine-guns and antiaircraft guns. They want something new.”

bob.drogin@latimes.com

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raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

Drogin reported from Cairo and Abdulrahim from Derna, Libya. Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.


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