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Baida: Forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi were reported to be striking back in several cites surrounding Tripoli on Thursday, as rebellion crept closer to the capital and defections of military officers multiplied.

The minaret of a mosque in Zawiya, a city 30 miles west of Tripoli where protesters had claimed victory, was blasted by heavy weapons in a morning attack, killing or wounding protesters who had been using the building as a refuge, a witness told The Associated Press by telephone. And in Sabratha, about 50 miles west of the capital where a government crackdown has been under way for several days, gunshots rang out as military troops filled the town, a witness said. With journalists banned from the area, it was impossible to independently verify these reports.

“We are not afraid, we are watching,” said the witness in Sabratha, a doctor reached by telephone. The city was under lockdown, he said, with no stores open, and the buildings of the police and Col. Qaddadi’s revolutionary committees were in ruins, he said, burned by protesters. “What I am sure about,” he said, “is that change is coming.”

Tripoli also remained in a state of lockdown, even as Colonel Gaddafi called on thousands of mercenaries and irregular security forces to defend his bastion, in what residents said was a desperate and dangerous turn in the week-old uprising.
Distrustful of even his own generals, Colonel Gaddafi has for years quietly built up this ruthless and loyal force. It is made up of special brigades headed by his sons, segments of the military loyal to his native tribe and its allies, and legions of African mercenaries he has helped train and equip. Many are believed to have fought elsewhere, in places like Sudan, but he has now called them back.

Witnesses said on Wednesday that thousands of members of this irregular army were massing on roads to the capital, Tripoli, where one resident described scenes evocative of anarchic Somalia: clusters of heavily armed men in mismatched uniforms clutching machine guns and willing to carry out orders to kill Libyans that other police and military units, and even fighter pilots, have refused.

Some residents of Tripoli said they took the gathering army as a sign that the uprising might be entering a decisive stage, with Colonel Gaddafi fortifying his main stronghold in the capital and protesters there gearing up for their first organized demonstration after days of spontaneous rioting and bloody crackdowns.

The fall of other cities to rebels on Wednesday, including Misurata, 130 miles east of the capital, left Colonel Gaddafi more embattled — and his opponents emboldened. By Thursday, there were also reports that Zuara, 75 miles west of the capital, was under the control of antigovernment militias. To the east, at least half of the nation’s coast, up to the port of Ra’s Lanuf, appeared to have fallen to opposition forces, a Guardian correspondent in the area reported. Colonel Gaddafi’s hometown of Surt, believed to still be under government control, lay between there and the capital.

“A message comes to every mobile phone about a general protest on Friday in Tripoli,” one resident of Tripoli said. Colonel Gaddafi’s menacing speech to the country on Tuesday — when he vowed to hunt down opponents “house by house” — increased their determination “100 percent,” the resident said.

Dozens of checkpoints operated by a combination of foreign mercenaries and plainclothes militiamen lined the road west of Tripoli for the first time, witnesses said, requiring not only the presentation of official papers but also displays of flag-waving, fist-pumping enthusiasm for Colonel Gaddafi, who has long fashioned himself as a pan-African icon.

“You are trying to convince them you are a loyalist,” one resident said, “and the second they realize that you are not, you are done for.”

The overall death toll so far has been impossible to determine. Human rights groups say they have confirmed about 300 deaths, though witnesses suggested the number was far larger. On Wednesday, Franco Frattini, the foreign minister of Italy — the former colonial power with longstanding ties — said that nationwide more than 1,000 people were probably dead in the strife.

Egyptian officials said Wednesday that nearly 30,000 people — mostly Egyptians working in Libya — had fled across their border. People fleeing west into Tunisia said the rebellion was now taking off far from its origins just a week ago in the eastern city of Benghazi, Libya‘s second largest city, which fell over the weekend.

There were reports for the first time of protests in the southern city of Sabha, considered a Gaddafi stronghold.

On Wednesday, protesters had claimed victory in Zawiya, where local army units are said to have joined them. In Sabratha, home of an important Roman archaeological site, witnesses had reported a heavy deployment of machine-gun toting foreign mercenaries and Gaddafi loyalists known as revolutionary committees.

“The revolutionary committees are trying to kill everyone who is against Gaddafi,” said a doctor fleeing Sabratha at the Tunisian border, declining to give his name for fear of reprisals if he returned.

But amid spreading rebellion and growing defections by top officials, diplomats and segments of the regular army, Colonel Gaddafi’s preparations for a defense of Tripoli also reframed the question of who might still be enforcing his rule. It is a puzzle that military analysts say reflects the singular character of the society he has shaped — half tribal, half police state — for the past 41 years.

“It is all shadow and mirrors and probably a great deal of corruption as well,” said Paul Sullivan, a professor at Georgetown who has studied the Libyan military.

Colonel Gaddafi, who took power in a military coup, has always kept the Libyan military too weak and divided to do the same thing to him. About half its relatively small 50,000-member army is made up of poorly trained and unreliable conscripts, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Many of its battalions are organized along tribal lines, ensuring their loyalty to their own clan rather than to top military commanders — a pattern evident in the defection of portions of the army to help protesters take the eastern city of Benghazi.

Colonel Gaddafi’s own clan dominates the air force and the upper level of army officers, and they are believed to have remained loyal to him, in part because his clan has the most to lose from his ouster.

Other clans, like the large Warfalla tribe, have complained that they have been shut out of the top ranks, Professor Sullivan noted, which may help explain why they were among the first to turn on Colonel Gaddafi.

Untrusting of his officers, Colonel Gaddafi built up an elaborate paramilitary force — accompanied by special segments of the regular army that report primarily to his family. It is designed to check the army and in part to subdue his own population. At the top of that structure is his roughly 3,000-member revolutionary guard corps, which mainly guards him personally.

Then there are the militia units controlled by Colonel Gaddafi’s seven sons. A cable from the United States Embassy in Libya released by WikiLeaks described his son Khamis’s private battalion as the best equipped in the Libyan Army.

His brother Sa’ad has reportedly used his private battalion to help him secure business deals. And a third brother, Muatassim, is Colonel Gaddafi’s national security adviser. In 2008 he asked for $2.8 billion to pay for a battalion of his own, to keep up with his brothers.

But perhaps the most significant force that Colonel Gaddafi has deployed against the current insurrection is one believed to consist of about 2,500 mercenaries from countries like Chad, Sudan and Niger that he calls his Islamic Pan African Brigade.

Colonel Gaddafi began recruiting for his force years ago as part of a scheme to bring the African nations around Libya into a common union, and the mercenaries he trained are believed to have returned to Sudan and other bloody conflicts around Africa. But from the accounts of many witnesses Colonel Gaddafi is believed to have recalled them — and perhaps others — to help suppress the uprising.

Since the Libyan military withdrew from the eastern border, Egyptian officials said, tens of thousands of Egyptians — many of whom had worked in Libya’s oil-propelled economy — have fled back to Egypt. About 4,200 crossed over on Sunday, a similar number on Monday, and about 20,000 on Tuesday, when border security collapsed.

The Egyptian authorities said the migrants brought the bodies of three people killed in the crackdown on Benghazi, five people wounded by bullets and 14 others who were taken to a hospital with serious injuries. Many complained that they had been attacked and robbed by the mercenaries, officials said.

Mustafa Said Ahmed, 26-year-old accountant who had worked in Benghazi, said in an interview that he saw 11 people killed by the mercenaries in “a massacre” after the noon prayer last Friday.

The country’s long-serving interior minister, Gen. Abdel Fattah Younes al-Abidi, said Wednesday that he had decided to resign after the people of Benghazi were shot down with machine guns.

In an interview with CNN, he said he had argued against Colonel Gaddafi’s intention to use airplanes to bomb that city, the nation’s second largest, warning that it would kill thousands. State media, however, claimed he had been kidnapped by “gangs.”

The justice minister has already resigned for similar reasons. Two Libyan bombers diverted to Malta rather than bomb civilians, and on Wednesday a Libyan newspaper reported that a third Libyan military pilot had downed his bomber in the eastern province rather than carry out a mission to bomb Benghazi.

After nightfall on Wednesday, witnesses reported sporadic bursts of gunfire around Tripoli neighborhoods. But they said the streets seemed eerily deserted. Green Square, which had been a rallying point for pro-Gaddafi forces, had only a few hundred left in it. And the state television headquarters, which had been heavily guarded, was left almost unattended.

Elsewhere, there were signs that Colonel Gaddafi’s forces were refortifying. For the first time, witnesses said, at least four army tanks had rolled into the streets of the capital.