Shortages grip Libyan capital as rebels hunt for Gaddafi

Reuters , Saturday 27 Aug 2011

Tripoli struggled with collapsing water and power supplies on Saturday as rebels, now in control of most of the Libyan capital, battled pockets of fighters loyal to Gaddafi

Residents prepare food for rebels fighting in the frontline in Tripoli
Residents prepare food for rebels fighting in the frontline in Tripoli, at the village of Janzour (Reuters photo)

Sporadic bursts of gunfire echoed around Tripoli, but the street fighting of recent days, much of it in the traditionally pro-Gaddafi Abu Salim neighbourhood, seemed to have died away.

The rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) is trying to assert its authority and restore order in Tripoli but its top officials have yet to move there from Benghazi in the east.

The coastal highway to Tripoli is cut by pro-Gaddafi forces holding Sirte, the deposed leader's birthplace, 450 km (300 miles) east of the capital. They are defying rebels who had hoped Sirte would surrender swiftly after the fall of Tripoli.

Gaddafi's own whereabouts remain unknown -- rebels hunting him say the war will not end until the 69-year-old colonel who kept Libya in his grip for 42 years is captured or killed.

A convoy of six Mercedes cars crossed from Libya into Algeria on Friday, Egypt's state MENA news agency reported, quoting a rebel source. It was impossible to verify the report, but MENA quoted the source as speculating senior Libyan officials or Gaddafi himself and his sons may have fled Libya.

The NTC and the Western powers that backed rebel forces with a five-month bombing campaign are acutely aware of the need to prevent Libya collapsing into the kind of chaos that plagued Iraq for years after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

Life remains far from normal in Tripoli, whose two million people are grappling with a breakdown in basic services, even as many of them celebrate the overthrow of a hated leader.

"There are widespread shortages of fuel, food and medical supplies, particularly in the Nafusa Mountains and Tripoli," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in New York, citing reports the water supply to Tripoli and its environs may be in danger, putting three million people or more at risk.

Britain promised to channel urgent humanitarian support to the International Committee of the Red Cross to help it treat up to 5,000 war-wounded, provide food for nearly 690,000 people forced to flee their homes and reunite divided families.

The shortages in Tripoli have worsened, even though NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil said on Thursday his forces had discovered huge stockpiles of food and medicine in the capital that would eliminate any shortfalls.

Stinking garbage was piled high in the streets. In some districts, people set it on fire to stave off disease.

Electricity supplies were sporadic and running water was scarce. Residents carried empty containers to mosques, which often have wells in their courtyards, hoping to fill up. Outside one mosque, a sign read: "No water left."

In Abu Salim, bullet casings, some from large-calibre weapons, littered a square. About 50 charred cars dotted the neighbourhood, some tipped over with their doors hanging open.

Dozens of decomposing bodies still lay in and around Abu Salim's main hospital, abandoned by medical staff during the fighting. Rebels at a nearby checkpoint said the five doctors working there had fled three days ago. It was not clear how the deaths of the victims had occurred.

Five bloated bodies lay on trolleys at the entrance to the emergency department. They appeared to be pro-Gaddafi fighters. Two of them were dark-skinned, possibly among the thousands of sub-Saharan Africans who were drafted in to fight for Gaddafi.

Twenty-five bodies lay in the garden, wrapped in rugs and sprinkled with lime in a vain attempt to keep down the smell. Surgical masks and gloves were scattered on the ground. Ambulances were still parked in front of the hospital.

Amnesty International said on Friday it had evidence pro-Gaddafi forces had killed several prisoners in two camps in Tripoli since the battle for the capital erupted a week ago.

A Reuters correspondent counted 30 bullet-riddled bodies, apparently of pro-Gaddafi fighters, in central Tripoli on Thursday. At least two had their hands bound.

The NTC, which has warned its fighters not to carry out revenge killings, says it will merge its disparate forces in the capital under one command to streamline operations.

The rebel council is pressing foreign powers to release Libyan funds frozen abroad to help it restore security, provide services and revive the economy after six months of conflict.

The United States and South Africa struck a deal on Thursday to allow the release of $1.5 billion in frozen Libya funds for humanitarian aid and other civilian needs.

But Gaddafi's long-time allies in Africa, beneficiaries of his oil-fuelled largesse and sympathisers with a foreign policy he called anti-colonial, offered him a grain of comfort and irked the rebels on Friday by refusing to follow Arab and Western powers in recognising the NTC as the legal government.

Combined with the reluctance of major powers like China, Russia and Brazil, to see Europeans and Americans dominate a nation with Africa's biggest oil reserves, the African Union's resistance may slow the pace at which funds are released.

While many African states have recognised the NTC, the AU would not do so as long as fighting continued, South African President Jacob Zuma, a vocal advocate for Gaddafi, said after a meeting in Addis Ababa at which the AU called for all sides in the conflict to negotiate peace and work for democracy.

Many Libyans are eager to seal the victory of a popular uprising that was inspired by those in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia by seeing the deposed leader dead or behind bars.

"Gaddafi is the biggest criminal and dictator and we hope we will find him before the end of Ramadan," said Milad Abu Aisha, 60, after prayers at a Tripoli mosque on the last Friday before the Muslim fasting month ends early next week.

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