TRIPOLI, (Reuters) – The people of Tripoli ventured out to mosques on Friday, praying for peace and offering thanks for the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, though the Libyan capital remained locked down and dangerous as rebel fighters hunted the fugitive strongman.
Libya’s new leaders pressed foreign powers for cash to build an army and police force, as well as hospitals, schools and the means to exploit their oil wealth. But as Muslims prepared for the great festival of Eid, many Libyans and their backers in the West saw the first priority as capturing or killing Gaddafi.
“Gaddafi is the biggest criminal and dictator and we hope we will find him before the end of Ramadan,” said Milad Abu Aisha, a 60-year-old pensioner who joined friends at his local mosque in Tripoli. The last Friday prayers of the fasting month, which ends with Eid on Monday, are traditionally well attended.
“It will be the happiest Eid in 42 years,” said Mohammed al-Misrati, a 52-year-old office worker who was among hundreds streaming toward the mosque under the protection of armed local men who have formed ad hoc security units across the capital.
“We have a taste of freedom after 42 years of repression and oppression,” said Misrati. “We have discovered freedom.”
Despite sporadic gunfire, Tripoli was quieter than in recent days. Dead bodies, the stench of rotting garbage in the oppressive summer heat, wrecked cars and the other detritus of war were evidence of frantic efforts to stamp out loyalist resistance that have failed to track down Gaddafi or his sons.
“Things have been relatively quiet this morning. It’s the result of the intense fighting of the last few days,” said one rebel field commander Omar Ghirani. “This is the first Friday since the fall of the tyrant. It’s a very important day.
“Fear has been with us for 42 years but is no more.”
Some do fear, however, that the 69-year-old “Brother Leader”, who issued a defiant call to arms on Thursday, may have fled the capital along long-planned escape routes in order to mount an insurgent fightback. After his compound was overrun on Tuesday, rebel leaders put a price on his head and said victory would only be complete when Gaddafi was found, “dead or alive”.
British aircraft bombed a headquarters bunker overnight in his birthplace of Sirte. A city beyond rebel control, on the Mediterranean coast 450 km (300 miles) east of Tripoli, some believe he might seek refuge there among his tribesmen. Loyalist forces also still hold positions deep in the Sahara desert.
“Sirte remains an operating base from which pro-Gaddafi troops project hostile forces against Misrata and Tripoli,” a NATO official said, adding that its forces had also acted to stop a column of 29 vehicles heading west toward Misrata.
In Benghazi, rebel military spokesman Ahmed Bani said the bombing in Sirte was aimed at ammunition stores and depots for Scud missiles. “Maybe the mercenaries will run away,” he said, referring to suggestions Gaddafi’s forces include hired fighters from Chad and other sub-Saharan African countries. “After this bombing, maybe the people there will try to rise up.” he added.
British officials denied the strike in Sirte was aimed at killing Gaddafi, who the rebel leadership believes is most likely to be around Tripoli, using long-prepared safe houses and carefully planned networks of bunkers and tunnels.
“It’s not a question of finding Gaddafi, it’s ensuring the regime does not have the capability to continue waging war against its own people,” said Defense Secretary Liam Fox.
U.S. officials, wary of public sentiment against involvement in a new foreign war after Iraq andAfghanistan, as well as of wider international opposition to any Western grab for influence in Libya, played down Washington’s role in hunting Gaddafi.
“Neither the United States nor NATO is involved in this manhunt,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
France and Britain have taken a military lead in backing the rebels who rose up against Gaddafi six months ago under the influence of the Arab Spring revolts in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. They have said NATO is helping with reconnaissance and intelligence and many analysts assume some British and French special forces units on the ground, working with the rebels.
Colonel Hisham Buhagiar of the rebel force in the capital said Libyan commandos were targeting several areas: “We are sending special forces every day to hunt down Gaddafi. We have one unit that does intelligence and other units that hunt him.”
GOVERNMENT IN WAITING
The rebel leadership announced it was planning to move from the eastern city of Benghazi, where the revolution to topple Gaddafi began, to govern the country from Tripoli. A spokesman for Mustafa Abdel Jalil, Gaddafi’s former justice minister who heads the National Transitional Council in Benghazi, said he may reach Tripoli next week — but he could not be not sure of that.
Loyalist forces are still present in several areas of the city, some of them flying rebel banners rather than the green flags of the Gaddafi era. NATO warplanes, whose support has been crucial to the rebels’ advance into the capital, could be heard over Tripoli during the night, residents said.
Western powers have demanded Gaddafi’s surrender and worked to help the opposition start developing the trappings of government and bureaucracy lacking in the oil-rich state after four decades of an eccentric personality cult.
However, despite a deal between Washington and South Africa to ensure the release of $1.5 billion in frozen Libyan assets for immediate relief, diplomatic wrangling between Western and other states over recognizing the new leadership continued.
The African Union, which was long close to Gaddafi and has been wary of the way Western powers have unseated him, has yet to offer the explicit recognition the rebel leadership has asked for. Two Western diplomats said AU officials meeting in Addis Ababa on Friday would maintain that refusal of recognition.
Other developing powers, including Brazil, China and Russia, have also voiced reservations over the Western and NATO influence over the new leaders in Libya. Competition for Libya’s oil resources is providing spice for the political arguments.
NEED FOR SECURITY
Mahmoud Jibril, head of the government in waiting, said time was short, however. Visiting NATO member Turkey, which is also pushing for a quick end to U.N.-imposed sanctions intended to punish Gaddafi, Jibril said the new leadership needed funds now.
“We have to establish an army, strong police force to be able meet the needs of the people and we need capital and we need the assets,” Jibril said.
“All our friends in the international community speak of stability and security. We need that too.”
The lack of security will be just one of many challenges facing Libya’s new masters as they try to meet the expectations of young men now bearing arms and to heal ethnic, tribal and other divisions that have been exacerbated by civil war.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as funds are released, the United States would expect the Council to fulfill the commitments it has made to build a tolerant, unified democratic state that protects the human rights of its citizens.
“It is critical that the TNC engage swiftly with communities and leaders across Libya to ensure order, provide critical basic services to the people and pave the way for a full democratic transition,” she said in a statement. “There can be no place in the new Libya for revenge attacks and reprisals.”
At the heart of Gaddafi’s power base, the Bab al-Aziziya compound in central Tripoli where flies buzzed around one body still lying by a gateway, fighters were still going through offices, homes and stores. Identity cards of army personnel were scattered across a floor, dumped out of filing cabinets.
As some rebels drove around in pick-up trucks, shouting “Libya free!”, people were still hauling away such booty as they could find after three days of looting. Some posed for photographs in front of the statue of a giant fist crushing a U.S. fighter jet. Others were burning green Gaddafi flags.
“We feel joy and victory,” said 26-year-old Khairy Mohammed.
“It was horror here.”