Pro-government forces in Libya's capital city of Tripoli opened fire near more than 1,500 protesters marching after prayers at a local mosque on Friday. As demonstrators chanted, "The people want to bring the regime down," regime forces fired volleys of tear gas into the crowd, and shot rounds of bullets. (It wasn't immediately clear if the troops fired at the demonstrators or into the air.)
The swift crackdown underscored a central tenet of Muammar Qaddafi's tenacious plan to maintain power in the unraveling country: Maintain control of the capital.
Even as government forces clashed with opposition groups in bloody battles near the capital all week, Qaddafi's supporters terrorized residents in Tripoli-an effort aimed at suppressing demonstrations that could destabilize the city and topple the regime. Last Friday, regime forces opened fire on protesters in the capital, killing an unknown number of demonstrators.
Local residents told reporters that the aggressors-largely comprised of clusters of hired mercenaries-raided homes and detained suspected demonstrators. Some of the arrested resurfaced later-dead and dumped in city streets.
Internet giant Google reported that web access appeared severed in most parts of the country by early Friday, suppressing the already-unsteady flow of information. (A source in Libya that I corresponded with this week suddenly stopped replying to email on the same day.)
Despite the thuggish attempts to silence crowds, protesters continued to gather in small bands around Tripoli. And opposition forces continued to wage battles closer to the capital after largely securing the eastern part of the country. With Qaddafi vowing to fight to the death, both sides of the war will likely endure worsening bloodshed before the end.
The unhinged dictator disdains his enemies and shows little concerns for civilian deaths, underscoring security expert Paul Wolfowitz's characterization of the Qaddafi regime as "a government that has no need for its people." Wolfowitz-the former U.S. deputy secretary of defense-says that with most Libyans dependent on the regime for their livelihoods in a largely government-controlled economy, Qaddafi has had little incentive to grant his people greater freedoms. He likely won't begin now.
Meanwhile, Libyans and other residents living through the civil war continue to suffer from a lack of safety and an increasing lack of services and supplies. The aid group Doctors Without Borders reported that many wounded in Tripoli weren't seeking medical treatment for fear of reprisals by pro-Qaddafi forces. The group said that doctors were treating patients in private locations in some cities where troops blocked access to roads leading to hospitals, but that physicians were running out of medicine and supplies.
The United Nations reported that the flow of migrant workers and others seeking to flee Libya slowed significantly on Thursday, raising fears that many were unable to leave dangerous areas. Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said pro-government forces controlled parts of the border near Tunisia.