Gunfire reported across Tripoli

 

Heavy automatic weapons fire erupted in the Libyan capital Tripoli today, the first such outbreak in Muammar Gadafy's main stronghold in a two-week-old insurrection against his 41-year-old rule.

It was unclear who was doing the shooting, which started just before daybreak, or what had caused it.

Machine gun volleys, some of them heavy calibre, reverberated around central Tripoli along with ambulance sirens, pro-Gadafy chants, and a cacophony of car horns as vehicles sped through the vicinity.

Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim denied any fighting was under way in the capital, saying the gunfire was to mark the army's recapture of several cities from rebel forces.

"These are celebrations because government forces have taken control of all areas to Benghazi and are in the process of taking control of Benghazi," Mr Ibrahim claimed, referring to Libya's rebel-controlled second largest city situated in the far east.

A rebel spokesman in eastern Libya said, however, that insurgents were still advancing on the central coastal city of Sirte, Gadafy's hometown which lies hundreds of kilometres to the west of the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

"We have moved on to the offensive and we are near Sirte now," Colonel Lamine Abdelwahabin of Benghazi's rebel military committee said.

Meanwhile Britain's Sunday Times reported that rebels had seized a British SAS special forces unit of up to eight soldiers escorting a junior diplomat in eastern Libya on a secret diplomatic mission to make contact with opposition leaders.

The SAS intervention apparently angered opposition figures who fear Gadafy could use any evidence of Western military intervention to sway patriotic support away from the uprising, according to the London paper.

In a French newspaper interview, Gadafy said he was embroiled in a fight against Islamist terrorism and expressed dismay at the absence of support from abroad.

"I am surprised that nobody understands that this is a fight against terrorism," Gadafy told Le Journal du Dimanche.

Western leaders have denounced what they call Gadafy's brutal response to the uprising, and the International Criminal Court said he and his inner circle face investigation for alleged targeting of civilians by his security forces.

Libya’s State television said government forces had retaken the important coastal cities of Zawiyah and Misrata, to the immediate west and east of Tripoli. A resident in Misrata said the city was still in rebel hands.

As of last night, Libyan rebels had dug into positions in Zawiyah after withstanding two armoured assaults by government forces. It was not possible to reach anyone in the town early this morning.

Salem Ghazy, a Tripoli businessman, was part of a group of men, some of them security forces and others civilians, who were firing into the air from automatic weapons in Tripoli and brandishing posters of Gadafy.

"Libya is united. We will fight these forces that are trying to ruin the country. These forces are backed by outside powers," he said.

A resident near the central Green Square said: "They are shooting in celebration. It's because they said the towns where the rebels have been fighting have been liberated."

Mr Ibrahim denied there was any fighting in Tripoli. "Everything is safe. Tripoli is 100 per cent under control," he said, while adding: "I would like to advise not to go there for your safety."

Rebel commander Mr Abdelwahabin said most people in Tripoli opposed Gadafy. "All Libyans are unanimous about overthrowing Gadafy, even in Tripoli, but they are unable to move there as all the security forces are dressed in civilian clothing, mixing with anyone trying to protest," he said.

A tense calm settled over the western town of Zawiyah after nightfall yesterday, with rifle-toting insurgents on rooftops and manning checkpoints on streets leading into the centre.

The rebels said they were bracing for another tank and artillery attack by government forces today.

Deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim had told reporters late last night that Zawiyah was "quiet and peaceful. "We hope by tomorrow morning life will be back to normal".

A doctor in Zawiyah, some 50 kilometres west of Tripoli, said at least 30 people, mostly civilians, were killed during fighting yesterday that wrecked the town centre, raising to at least 60 the death toll from two days of battles.

Almost 600 kilometres to the east along Libya's Mediterranean coast, insurgents said they took the town of Bin Jawad yesterday, on the heels of seizing the oil port of Ras Lanuf, and were thrusting westwards towards Sirte.

Exultant after asserting control over much of the east of the vast oil-exporting North African state in a revolt against the flamboyant autocrat Gadafy, some rebels said an assault on Sirte was imminent.

"If (rebels) can expand down into the Gulf of Sirte ... they've got a very good shot at independence at the least - or maybe even overturning him at the most," said Peter Zeihan, analyst with the US-based Stratfor intelligence newsletter.

But others were wary of the limitations of an undisciplined rebel force made up of soldiers who have bolted from Gadafy’s ranks and volunteers who have more enthusiasm than experience.

Where many eastern towns have fallen with scant resistance, Sirte is unlikely to be a pushover. It has long received hefty subsidies from Gadafy, who liked to host Arab and other international conferences in the coastal city.

Sirte also hosts a major air base and significant military forces loyal to Gadafy and the Sirte basin is home to a large part of Libya's oil reserves.

Reuters