The glittering fireworks show burst into a thunderous ending. The cheering in the soccer stadium died down. A crowd of mostly young men enduring a chilly Wednesday night to rally in support of Moammar Kadafi’s claimed victory over the rebels of this town scrambled to collect their reward: truckloads of free rice, pasta, milk, sodas and vegetable oil handed out from waiting military vehicles.
They hauled off their bounty with at least as much enthusiasm as they had shown minutes earlier for their leader, whose forces have for weeks been fighting rebels for control of this city of 210,000 people.
“Free Libya!” one man cried as he ran off with his booty.
It was a surreal end to a macabre ceremony arranged for foreign journalists, who were brought for midnight festivities to this town where dozens have died and families continue to mourn. When Libyan officials saw journalists noticing the giveaway, they began hustling them back on buses to return to Tripoli.
“All those killed were Al Qaeda,” one young man at the rally said, echoing a common refrain by Kadafi and his supporters: The movement against him is spearheaded by Islamic extremists.
“We celebrate because of freedom,” said Muftah Anfituni, a 34-year-old electrical engineer. “For two weeks, we couldn’t go out of our houses because of those killers.”
The late-night trip to the rally in Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, the capital, was part of the regime’s increasingly assertive military and propaganda campaign against its domestic opponents.
Earlier Wednesday, the Tripoli government announced a $400,000 bounty on the head of opposition leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who heads the transitional government based in the rebel-held eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Libya has been torn in two since an uprising began last month, inspired by revolutions in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.
In a defiant speech broadcast early Wednesday morning, Kadafi derided the rebels who have taken over the eastern half of the country as “traitors” and blamed foreigners and Al Qaeda for perpetrating the unrest roiling the North African state that he has ruled for more than four decades.
The harsh tone of the speech, delivered late Tuesday in Tripoli to members of the Zintan tribe and broadcast on state television hours later, appeared to put to rest rumors reported in some foreign media that the 68-year-old leader was considering stepping down or forging a compromise with the rebel government.
Despite claims of victory, reports of bloodshed continued in Zawiya and other rebel-controlled coastal enclaves in western Libya. Residents said Zawiya remained under siege, with telecommunications cut off. Libyans with friends and relatives in the city struggled to get information about loved ones caught up in the fighting.
Ahmed, a 28-year-old law student in Tripoli, said he managed to speak to two friends Tuesday and Wednesday who were trying to escape the city, which was bombarded Tuesday by artillery and tank fire and had no running water or electricity for several days.
“There is a lack of everything: food and medicines,” said Ahmed, who asked that his last name not be published.
“There’s no gas in the city,” said Sawsen Abdel-Hafidh Ouanis, a 45-year-old woman in rebel-controlled Benghazi whose two youngest daughters, Nada and Mawada, are visiting her pregnant eldest daughter, Nairouz, a 22-year-old Zawiya resident. She said her daughters managed to place a phone call to her Tuesday.
They described intense shelling, artillery fire and aerial bombardment directed at civilian residences in the city as well as a campaign of kidnappings directed at the relatives of those fighting against Kadafi’s authority.
“They are afraid to go into the garden because of the shooting,” Ouanis said. “They stay in the house and don’t move. Planes drop bombs during the night and during the morning. There is no medicine, no food and no milk for children. They can see people dead in the street.”
During the journalists’ late-night Wednesday trip to Zawiya, the signs of recent fighting were visible. Large-caliber bullet holes pocked a residential building adjacent to the well-lighted soccer stadium where the celebration was held. Trash and litter were strewn across streets where soldiers in uniform hovered at makeshift checkpoints.
In the rebel-controlled city of Misurata, about 130 miles east of the capital, a doctor reached by telephone said the city’s main hospital was treating patients with gunshot wounds without stop. “I see so many patients, I have lost count,” he said.
Since the beginning of the uprising, which reached Misurata on Feb. 19, about 350 people have died and 1,000 have suffered injuries in the fighting there.
The accounts from Misurata and Zawiya could not be verified because of restrictions placed on foreign journalists, who were not allowed to travel independently to either city.
In his address to members of the Zintan tribe, Kadafi did not speak about the strife in the two cities. The Libyan leader denounced the United States, Britain and France — which are contemplating the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Kadafi’s forces from launching airstrikes on civilians — as seeking to control the country’s oil as part of an imperialist scheme.
He referred to an alleged conversation between a British diplomat and an opposition figure in rebel-controlled Benghazi as evidence that the West is plotting to establish dominion over Libya, which suffered under brutal Italian rule in the 1920s and 1930s.
Kadafi reserved his harshest comments for the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council, led by former Libyan Justice Minister Jalil. He appealed to the people of Benghazi to rise up against the transitional government.
In Benghazi, the chief spokesman for the opposition’s military effort said a rebel attempt to advance into the village of Bin Jawwad to seize it from Kadafi’s forces had stalled under withering attacks from artillery, rockets, mortars and attack aircraft.
Hamid Hassy said rebel fighters and government forces are “situated about half and half” in the small desert outpost, which Kadafi’s men seized from rebels Sunday. Bin Jawwad controls access to the coastal highway leading west to Tripoli, nearly 400 miles away.
Hassy said the opposition leadership has elected not to use outdated aircraft seized from military bases overrun by the opposition during protests last month because of “the danger to civilans.”
The rebels have displayed at least two old Russian-made attack helicopters at the Benghazi airport, and they say they also have an undisclosed number of outmoded fighter planes.
Some aircraft are in need of parts and ammunition, but Hassy said they are capable of flying in combat.
Times staff writer David Zucchino in Benghazi and special correspondent Sihem Hassaini contributed to this report.