Africa

Spectre of prolonged civil war looms for Libya

Children of a pro-Gaddafi soldier wave his guns at a rally in Green Square, Tripoli, 6 March
Image caption These children of a pro-Gaddafi soldier waved his guns at a rally in Tripoli's Green Square on Sunday

As I write I can hear volleys of gunfire hammering around Tripoli. It is around 1430 on Sunday and since early morning supporters of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi have been out in the streets celebrating.

They have been told - and seem to believe without question - that his forces have scored important victories. One of the government spokesmen said Zawiya, Misrata and Ras Lanuf had been recaptured from rebels, and that Col Gaddafi's forces were advancing on Benghazi, the epicentre of the rebellion.

Not long after first light, I went to Green Square, right in the middle of Tripoli and the place where true believers in the regime congregate to celebrate its triumphs.

A couple of thousand people were there - the numbers have grown since then - and the atmosphere was crackling with feverish celebration.

Young men had climbed on to speakers and were dancing to music that praised their leader. Women, many with small children, swayed and sang along.

Guns were everywhere, pistols as well as Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles. Every so often their owners fired into the air. Someone was letting off fireworks as well.

There were green flags, green bandanas and green fringed posters of the colonel which kept getting kissed.

"Libya is united again," one man said. "We all love Gaddafi. He is our father and our brother. He is our leader."

Cover-up?

They believe him, without any doubt, when he says that the trouble in Libya is being caused by al-Qaeda and its dupes, and by foreigners who want the country's oil.

Image caption The city of Zawiya reportedly saw some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict on Saturday

But as the morning went, a different version of events began to emerge. BBC journalists in Ras Lanuf reported that Col Gaddafi's forces had not captured the town.

As I write, there are still doubts about Zawiya, which is only 30 miles (48km) or so west of Tripoli. The government says that its men have crushed the rebels who have been in control of the town centre.

But officials here in Tripoli stalled when they were asked by journalists for permission to visit Zawiya.

Many reporters here have found out to their cost that attempts to visit places in the news without a government minder can lead to arrest and hours of detention by the military and the security services.

And there are questions being asked in Tripoli about the thousands of rounds that have been fired today.

Now, in daylight, it is clear that it is coming from Gaddafi supporters. I can hear cheering and chanting, and women ululating in celebration, all mixed in with the gunfire.

But before dawn it sounded different, more like a fight. I cannot confirm that happening, but that is how it sounded. Different sorts of guns appeared to be exchanging fire.

And later on, a Libyan man came up to me to say that there had been some sort of shoot-out going on, and the mass firing in the air and the celebrations had been started to cover it up.

Gaddafi's way

Tripoli is full of rumours, and versions of the truth. Some are closer to reality than the others.

The regime does appear to feel much more secure than it did 10 days ago when I arrived, even though it is more isolated. More of day-to-day life in Tripoli has resumed.

It is clear that this is not going to be a re-run of Tunisia or Egypt. Col Gaddafi is benefiting from the unique system of government he introduced into Libya in 1977. Notionally, it devolves all power to the people. That is why he says he has no official position from which to resign but it also deprives potential rivals of a power base.

In Egypt the intervention of the armed forces was crucial. Early on, they said they would protect the demonstrators, which they did, after a few false starts.

In the end President Hosni Mubarak was told to resign by his own generals. But in Libya, Col Gaddafi's system has hollowed out, or dismantled, any national institution that could become a rival to the leader.

As the fighting gets worse, there is a real risk of prolonged civil war. As long as Col Gaddafi can keep his own forces loyal, it does not look as if this crisis will end quickly or cleanly.