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Rebels Search for Weapons Before Assault on Qaddafi Hometown

Rebels Search for Munitions Ahead of Assault on Sirte
A young Libyan resident walks past spent bullet shells scattered along a street in the Abu Salim district of Tripoli, the scene of heavy fighting, on August 28, 2011. Photographer: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

Libyan rebels from three parts of the country converged on the capital in search of weapons as time runs out for those still supporting Muammar Qaddafi to surrender or face attack.

The coastal city of Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown, and the southern town of Sabha are the key remaining bastions of Qaddafi loyalists, rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil said yesterday in Benghazi. He called on people in those areas to surrender by Sept. 3 to avoid further bloodshed.

This week, residents of Tripoli witnessed battered black pickup trucks driven by fighters from the western city of Misrata crisscrossing the capital in search of ordnance. A Bloomberg reporter in a separate car followed a group from Faisal brigade.

The rebels are seeking to capture Qaddafi and his closest aides, including son Saif al-Islam, to consolidate their gains and bring stability to the North African nation after entering Tripoli last week. Some of Qaddafi’s immediate family fled to Algeria.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Paris for a meeting tomorrow of the so-called Libya Contact Group. Clinton and her foreign counterparts will coordinate financial and political support for the rebel National Transitional Council, according to the State Department.

Not Welcomed

In some parts of Tripoli, the fighters flashed V for victory gestures and were met with energetic replies. In others, they weren’t, possibly an indication the rebels aren’t universally welcome in a city that less than two weeks ago was controlled by Qaddafi.

The first stop for this group of young fighters was a former food warehouse containing 89 brass tank shells next to dozens of boxes, some overturned, full of mortar shells. The rebels were disappointed, saying fighters from other brigades got there first, taking the small-arms ammunition.

Fighter Abdullah Maiteeg said Qaddafi stocked other sites with ammunition to prepare for the defense of Tripoli, fearing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes in support of the rebels that pulverized army barracks across the capital.

Ammunition Claim

At another location, the site of a company publishing technical books, rebels from another brigade were guarding the front door. The main gate was blocked by a pile of sand and the guards said the ammunition inside belonged to them.

The Faisal truck left and waited for 20 minutes one street away, returning to find that the guards had gone off in search of a truck of their own, leaving the front door locked. The glass panel of the door was smashed with a boot and the Faisal fighters entered and brought out several cases of rockets.

In two such locations, there were dozens of green pants and jackets, which the Faisal fighters said were the uniforms government soldiers took off as rebels entered the city. The soldiers fled to safety wearing underwear and carrying guns, the rebels said.

Maiteeg, 24, said pro-Qaddafi militias were on the streets, pretending to be part of a rebel army that includes brigades from Misrata, the Nafusa Mountains and districts of Tripoli itself, contradicting claims by the council that the capital is fully under its control.

“They are all still here,” said Maiteeg, a former oil engineer. “You can see them. They wear our clothes and shout Allah Akbar, but they are Qaddafi guys.”

Rixos Hotel

By the time it grew dark, the pickup truck was full of ordnance including small arms ammunition and rockets, and it headed to the Rixos hotel, where two dozen western journalists had been trapped for six days as the battle for Tripoli raged.

The fighters mostly observed the Islamic fasting month Ramadan, so they had agreed to meet other rebel groups at the hotel after sundown for their evening meal, making use of the hotel kitchens.

While the staff seemed unhappy to see them, they let them use the kitchen if they brought their own food. The fighters said the district remains loyal to Qaddafi, something that couldn’t be independently verified.

Two pickup trucks with mounted machine guns were deployed at the gate. Next to them sat a black armored luxury car, the windows pocked with bullet marks. The car was abandoned after crashing into a tree near the hotel entrance.

Empty Streets

By the time dinner was finished, there was the crackle of small arms fire from around the city. The pickup truck, now loaded with ammunition, drove out through almost empty streets.

Further west in the city, the atmosphere changed. At the last checkpoint on the main highway leading to Misrata, civilians lined up holding baskets of bread, bottles of water, paper cups and metal pots of tea to give the fighters.

Children gathered, waving the rebel tricolor. The fighters said that the friendliness of these citizens was mixed with anxiety because the Misrata rebels were an important garrison element in Tripoli. Now they were returning home.

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