March 21, 2011 9:04 pm

Tripoli lives to a rhythm of bombs and anti-aircraft fire

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Daytime in Tripoli is still controlled by the regime of Muammer Gaddafi, but by night the people of the city are hostage to the missiles and bombs of the allies’ air campaign, and a cacophony of anti-aircraft guns that lights up the night sky and lends a surreal atmosphere to the usually quiet Mediterranean city.

As night falls, long lines form at shops and bakeries as the population stocks up on provisions, not knowing when the stores will open again. A petrol shortage is evident from the long lines at fuel pumps. Contact with ordinary Libyans is all but cut off due to government minders, who prevent journalists from leaving their hotel except in guarded caravans.

On Monday the only way out of the five-star Rixos hotel, where most foreign journalists are housed, was an organised tour of a school on the southern edge of Tripoli, where the pupils got a welcome day off for a propaganda exercise that is fast becoming the sine qua non of the government’s response to the bombing.

Garbed in green headbands and shouting well-worn pro-Gaddafi slogans, the pupils lectured the journalists on international law, the “crusader enemy” and their love for “the leader”.

The dozens of journalists cooped up in the hotel have precious little to write about aside from what the government shows them.

Using the foreign press is practically the only tool left at the Gaddafi regime’s disposal to influence its rapidly deteriorating situation. Shorn of its UN delegation, which defected, and with a large part of its heavy weaponry and air defence systems blown up in air strikes, the country is nearly defenceless and increasingly rudderless.

The unpredictable Col Gaddafi’s speech announcing his decision to send Libyan troops to root out opposition to his regime “street by street and house by house” now appears infrequently on TV. On Monday not a word of his was broadcast on state channels, even after his Tripoli compound was hit by a cruise missile. The attack destroyed one building but did not kill any of the 300-odd Gaddafi backers who have volunteered as human shields.

“There were people who were right next to the building when it was hit. We thought they were dead but they were just covered with dust,” said Mohammed, an interpreter who said he had spent all night in the compound as a volunteer, saying he wished to share the fate of the Libyan leader.

But for all the efforts being made to present a united front, there are signs that a leadership vacuum is slowly developing in Tripoli. Or at least that the message is becoming confused as cooler heads in the regime try to contain the havoc wreaked by Col Gaddafi’s inflammatory public statements.

On Sunday, after Col Gaddafi gave a rambling address on state television promising to “open weapons stores” to arm the population and threatening the west with a “long, drawn out war”, Milad al-Fouky, spokesman for the armed forces, announced Libya was “reaffirming” its commitment to a ceasefire, to begin that evening.

The previous day, Moussa Koussa, the foreign minister, also felt obliged to reaffirm the government’s ceasefire offer after another Gaddafi rant – in a letter to David Cameron, the UK prime minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general – declaring last week’s UN resolution authorising force “invalid”.

Mr Koussa seemed to want to dispel any appearance of daylight between the government and Col Gaddafi, but also to reaffirm the public commitment to a ceasefire, which he did, adding that Col Gaddafi’s speech “reaffirmed the position of the Jamahiriyah [Libyan Republic]”. Journalists were left scratching their heads.

The impression left is of an unpredictable leader whose underlings, too afraid to stop him, scurry around after him trying to clean up.

Col Gaddafi’s regime is working hard to present the image that the allied attacks are causing Libyans to close ranks around their leader. “We’re all afraid, and Gaddafi is the only one who can save us,” offered Leyla, a teacher at the Meethaq elementary school visited by journalists on Monday.

However, an extended bombing campaign and tightening sanctions might slowly start to chip away at Col Gaddafi’s support base as Libya’s elite see him less as a leader and more as a liability.

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