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Tue 10 May 2011 03:39 PM

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Terror rules in Tripoli

Fear of crackdown, conscription haunts Libyan capital as battle for power continues

Terror rules in Tripoli
Libyan rebels shout slogans against Gaddafi in Tripoli

Green bunting and pictures of Muammar Gaddafi festoon a
Tripoli district where two months ago protesters marched in the streets. Locals
whisper on corners, youths avert their gaze. Men watch passersby from unmarked
cars. The fear is palpable on Tripoli's streets, fear of speaking out and fear
of conscription as NATO air strikes hit Gaddafi's forces and fighting rages in
Misrata and the Western Mountains.

More than two months after an uprising against Gaddafi's
41-year rule saw rebels seize the eastern part of Libya, the army has crushed
dissent in the capital and its crack down on opponents elsewhere in the west is
spreading fear.

"No one wants him. If the people in Tripoli were not so
scared they would rise up. They did in February, in Tajoura, in Fashloom, in
Souq al-Jumaa, but he crushed them," said one shopkeeper, changing the subject
when other customers came in.

In the Fashloom district, a tent flanked by a big picture of
Gaddafi stands a few metres from the charred offices of the local revolutionary
council, set alight during the unrest that spread briefly in late February and
early March before fizzling out.

Rubbish gathers in the alleys, unasphalted and bumpy off the
main street, even in this vast oil-exporting country which has enough cash to provide
infrastructure for its seven million people.

Tripoli residents say activists have mounted sporadic
night-time attacks on Gaddafi's forces and hold gatherings after dark night in
dissident areas, but most are too afraid to act after what many believe has
been a spate of mass arrests.

The government has cut off internet access across Tripoli,
except in the closely-watched hotels hosting foreign journalists, making it
difficult for young activists to organise protests or to post footage or
pictures of their gatherings or attacks on the internet. The only gatherings
allowed are for Friday prayers and they are closely monitored.

Libyans widely believe the government listens to their phone
calls. Mobile phones do not send text messages, and the only way to speak
freely is to meet in person. With informants everywhere, the risk of being followed
or spotted is high.

Foreign journalists, monitored closely by the government,
are forbidden from visiting dissident areas alone and it is difficult to
interview residents freely. Few will speak with government minders looking on
and their four-wheel drive cars, with rear number plates often removed, inspire
fear.

One Tripoli resident said families had been warned that the
army may call men between 18 and 40 years old to fight. The army has yet to
enforce conscription, the resident said, but some families were already
thinking of sending their sons abroad.

"There are already volunteers and some of them are on
the front lines. This is different. People are afraid. I know one man who is
taking his son to Tunis," said the resident, looking furtively around for
potential eavesdroppers.

"People see this man's time is over. They just want him
to go and to spare them the war. If he left, then the NATO strikes would stop
so why is he staying? Things are getting difficult for people. Prices are
rising."

All over Tripoli, the economy has slowed. Work has stopped
on a golden-domed mosque in the centre of town. The cranes that once worked
busily during the capital's building boom are still.

Foreign investors have fled and so have foreign workers on
whom bakeries, restaurants and hotels relied. The Turkish staff at the Rixos
Hotel, where foreign journalists live, have left.

For weeks, petrol queues have snaked around corners as
NATO-enforced sanctions bite. There is no public transport in Tripoli and
tempers are flaring as people are no longer able to get to work or to take
their children to school.

In the old medina of Tripoli, the Athar restaurant that
overlooks a cluster of ruins is shut, its owner sitting with friends outside
the cobbled alleys that once attracted tourists.

"We had 40 staff and they have gone. Only four are left
so we could not keep going. We are only doing takeaway," said owner
Mohammed Shams. "We have three restaurants. Only one is open."

At his one open restaurant, only two tables were occupied at
lunch, one by foreign doctors, the other by foreign journalists.

The Tripoli government says Libya needs a transition to a
more transparent system. It says the sudden removal of Gaddafi would only turn
Libya into another Iraq or Somalia, countries torn apart by years of violence.

"You will have destruction and a lack of stability for
years and years and years without the fruits of transparency and human
rights," said government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim.

It is a fear shared by many Libyans, regardless of whether
they support Gaddafi or not.

"People just want it to be over. They don't care who is
in power," said the resident. "The only thing that worries them is
what comes next. People fear a vacuum. They are scared. It is the only thing
preventing a collapse."

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