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Gaddafi's last stand? NATO attacks suspected bunker in hometown

Tripoli celebrates – though clashes continue – while NATO forces pound what is believed to be Muammar Gaddafi’s last hideout.

Libyan rebel fighters hug on Green Square - now 'Martyr Square' - after Friday Muslim prayers in Tripoli today.
Libyan rebel fighters hug on Green Square - now 'Martyr Square' - after Friday Muslim prayers in Tripoli today.
Image: Francois Mori/AP

BRITISH WARPLANES HAVE attacked a large bunker in Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, his largest remaining stronghold, as NATO turned its attention to loyalist forces trying to hold back advancing Libyan rebels in the area.

The airstrikes came a day after fierce clashes erupted in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, which remains tense as rebels hunted for the elusive leader and his allies, detaining suspected loyalists and raising concerns about human rights violations.

Rebels today searched for the remnants of pro-Gaddafi forces in Tripoli’s Abu Salim neighborhood, which saw very heavy fighting the day before. The rebels had detained seven men and one woman, loading them into a pickup truck in a rural area between Abu Salim and the airport, saying Gaddafi forces might be trying to blend in with civilians.

“Things are still not stable and we are arresting anybody we find suspicious and taking them to the military council,” said field commander Fathi Shneibi.

Meanwhile, at a clinic attached to an Abu Salim fire station, injured men believed to be Gaddafi supporters or fighters were left moaning and calling for water. Curious neighborhood men climbed the stairs to look at them, but none offered help.

One of the wounded said he was from Niger and denied any links to Gaddafi. Asked why he was in Libya, he said, “I really don’t know.” He did not give his name.

Signs also emerged that the situation can turn far worse: Dozens of decomposing bodies were piled up in an abandoned Abu Salim hospital, a grim testament to the chaos rocking the capital. It was not clear when the men had been killed. The floors were covered with shattered glass and bloodstains, and medical equipment was strewn about.

One room had 21 bodies lying on stretchers, with 20 more in a courtyard next to the parking lot — all of them darker skinned than most Libyans. Gaddafi had recruited fighters from sub-Saharan Africa, but many others from the region are in Libya as migrant workers.

It was not clear who had killed the men, but since the uprising began the rebels often suspect sub-Saharan Africans of being mercenaries.

Human rights concerns

A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Steven Anderson, said the neutral aid group was concerned about the treatment of detainees on both sides in Tripoli. He declined to discuss specific examples, though, saying any findings are discussed confidentially with those involved.

The Geneva-based ICRC has been able to visit some prisoners on both sides, said Anderson, but “there are hundreds more probably.”

Tripoli, meanwhile, enjoyed the quietest day yet since the rebel takeover, though pro-Gaddafi forces were shelling the airport and sporadic shooting was reported elsewhere in the metropolis of two million people.

At the first Friday prayers since Tripoli fell to the rebels, hundreds of people crowded a mosque in central Tripoli, listening as the imam praised the rebels for taking up arms against Gaddafi. He said they had “liberated the land inch by inch, house by house, alley by alley,” using a famous phrase from a Gaddafi speech against the uprising.

Hearing the phrase, worshippers laughed or shouted “Allahu Akbar!”

Afterward, the worshippers marched out chanting in support of revolution. “Hold your head high, you are a free Libyan,” some shouted.

All is not rosy on the diplomatic front, though. The African Union will not yet recognise Libyan rebels as the new government, according to South African president Jacob Zuma, who rejected calls for recognition from Libyan rebel leaders and said Tripoli wasn’t under full rebel control.

Zuma spoke as AU leaders met in the Ethiopian capital to discuss the next action they should take regarding Libya. Many African nations have long ties with Gaddafi and the AU has had difficulty taking a unanimous stand.

“Fighting is still going on. That is the reality,” said Zuma, who chairs the AU committee on Libya. “We can’t say this is a legitimate [government] now.”

He said the AU did not rule out pro- or anti-Gaddafi forces from taking part in a future Libyan government. African countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria that already recognized the rebels were free to do so and also support the AU position, he said.

The UN has urged African leaders to “encourage new leadership” in Libya.

“We must help the country’s new leaders to establish an effective, legitimate government that represents and speaks for all the country’s diverse people,” UN deputy secretary general Asha Rose Migiro told AU leaders.

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Associated Press

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