Gadhafi's men shooting from ambulances

Over 2,000 armed volunteers, including army defectors, poised to enter Tripoli, claims rebel officer

 Shift in loyalty:  Libyan army paratroopers who defected and joined the popular uprising against Moammar Gadhafi celebrate in the eastern port city of Benghazi on Saturday. AFPWitnesses to the violence in Tripoli, where a tense standoff held on Saturday, also said that the government had removed dead bodies as well as the wounded from hospitals in an effort to disguise the mounting death toll in the uprising against Gadhafi  sweeping Libya.

Gadhafi’s forces had put down demonstrators, who had taken to the streets after Friday Prayers to mount their first major challenge to the government’s crackdown, with snipers from rooftops, buckshot, and tear gas, witnesses said. There were unconfirmed reports that an armed rebel force was approaching the city on Saturday.

In Tajoura, a neighborhood of the capital where there has been significant fighting since a peaceful demonstration there last Sunday, residents had barricaded a street with old television sets and cinderblocks to try to keep out pickup trucks full of men with machine guns. A doctor working at the local clinic here said he had seen 68 people killed and 150 injured in recent days of clashes, and that residents were braced for more violence.

A rebel officer who is coordinating an attack on Tripoli, Col Tarek Saad Hussein, asserted that an armed volunteer force of about 2,000 men — including army defectors — was to arrive in Tripoli on Friday night. There was no way to confirm his claim.

Protesters in Tripoli said that they had heard a force was on its way from the eastern cities that had fallen to rebels, but that they had been stopped in Surt, a remaining Qaddafi stronghold halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi, the opposition-controlled city where the uprising began.

Colonel Hussein was especially angered at the reports of security forces’ firing on protesters after prayers. “They did not have weapons,” he said, speaking at an abandoned army base in the eastern city of Benghazi, which is firmly under rebel control. “They shot people outside the mosque.”

Indeed, accounts of the bloodshed on Friday indicated that Colonel Gadhafi’s forces had deployed the same determined brutality as they had earlier in the week defending their leader, who has ruled for more than 40 years. “They shoot people from the ambulances,” said one terrified resident, Omar, by telephone as he recalled an episode during the protests on Friday when one protester was wounded. “We thought they’d take him to the hospital,” he said, but the militiamen “shot him dead and left with a squeal.”

A precise death toll might be impossible. Omar said that friends who were doctors at a hospital in Tripoli saw bodies being removed from the morgue to conceal the death toll. Local residents told him that the bodies were being taken to beaches and burned. Omar did not want his full named used for fear of his life. “We have no freedom here,” he said. “We want our freedom, too.”

Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch trying to confirm the number of fatalities, said she had heard widespread reports of security forces inside hospitals. Top officials of the biggest Tripoli hospitals were said to be loyal to Gadhafi and understating the casualties, she said.

The deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, had also said in New York on Friday that government forces had been shooting from ambulances, as he pleaded for international action to help stop the violence. “Hundreds of people have been killed. We expect thousands to be killed” in Tripoli, he told reporters.

The Tripoli airport has become a refugee camp packed with thousands of people trying to flee. The floors inside are a carpet of flesh and blankets, including families with children. Outside, a thick wall of thousands of refugees was waiting to get in, and at least two guards were beating them back — one with a billy club and the other a whip.

The city had been cleansed Thursday night for a visit by a number of foreign journalists the Gadhafi government has invited. Billboards with pictures of Gadhafi that were burned and defaced last week have all been restored, witnesses said. “It is a stage set they built overnight,” one resident said.

Arming civilians

On Friday, state television showed Gadhafi speaking from a parapet overlooking Green Square and addressing a crowd of supporters. “This is the formidable, invincible force of youth,” he said. “Life without dignity is useless.” He blew kisses to the crowd and urged them to fight to the death. “Every individual will be armed,” he said. “Libya will become a hell.”

A potentially large force of armed fighters sympathetic to the protesters was now converging on Tripoli, according to military officials who had defected to the rebels. Colonel Hussein said the force consisted of active duty, retired soldiers and army reservists who had joined the rebel side. It was sent to the capital in small groups, he said.

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