It was the four-month anniversary of the popular uprising against the Libyan regime, but the throngs converging Friday on Tripoli’s Green Square came to praise Moammar Kadafi, not to bury him.
Hundreds of celebratory gunshots crackled and triumphant posters of Kadafi were hoisted aloft in front of the ancient stone walls of the capital’s downtown market.
Several thousand buoyant Kadafi supporters — including entire families and young men and women in civilian clothes toting semiautomatic weapons — took part in a closely choreographed pep rally for their leader.
Later, the masses got to hear from Kadafi himself, who declared during a rambling audio address broadcast on state television that “the people, men and women, will join the battle.”
Meanwhile, more bombs hit Tripoli on Friday, including a daylight barrage that left a thick plume of black smoke rising from the city’s south. There was no immediate word on targets, damage or casualties.
It was the 79th day of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Libyan bombing campaign — surpassing the 78-day air offensive aimed at ousting the Serbs from Kosovo in 1999.
According to NATO, Kadafi’s hold on power is slipping, and the bombing campaign has severely degraded his forces fighting rebels arrayed against the regime on three fronts.
In his audio address, Kadafi urged Libyans to retake lost territory and to defend their homeland against “dogs, cowards and crusaders.” He vowed that NATO would be defeated and admonished his supporters: “Die! Die! Assume your duties!”
Security in Tripoli was especially tight all day, with riot police posted at major checkpoints. Rumors had circulated of symbolic protests to mark four months since Feb. 17, the day that rebels mark as the start of their revolt against Kadafi’s more than four decades of rule.
There were no reports of major disturbances in the city Friday.
The regime decided to mark the day, organizing the massive pro-Kadafi rally in symbolic Green Square, the heart of Tripoli’s old city.
Officials here have denied reports that the ubiquitous flag-waving loyalists are paid or otherwise coerced into coming. Friday’s event was among the largest such pro-government rallies since the conflict began.
“We love Kadafi!” marchers shouted at Western journalists bused to the scene. “God, Moammar, Libya and no more!” others cried, repeating the official chant of homage.
Rebels based in the eastern city of Benghazi say pro-Kadafi sentiment is thin in the capital. The government asserts that the vast majority of citizens in the capital support Kadafi.
Both sides also differ on the effect of the bombing campaign: The rebels say it has weakened Kadafi, while the government says it has caused a backlash, bolstering the ruler.