Libya crisis: Tensions on the road to Tripoli

A soldier from the Libyan army loyal to Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi fire shots in the air in Tripoli March 20, 2011

Again and again, along the road from the Tunisian border to Tripoli, you see evidence of real tension.

A special forces soldier pulls a spare can of petrol from the back of someone's car, opens it and kicks it so the petrol leaks out into the sand.

A passenger on a minibus is caught trying to hide money in his shoe and is punished by having everything he has on him strewn on the ground.

A group of children being shepherded home from school hurry past a group of soldiers with obvious anxiety, averting their eyes.

Each of the towns we drive through, Zuara, Sabratha and Zawiya, has been a battlefield in the last few days and although the pro-Gaddafi forces have recaptured them, the signs of fighting are everywhere still.


Image caption Col Gaddafi still has many supporters in Tripoli

In Zuara, most of the shops are still shuttered and there are still the skeletons of burned-out cars beside the road.

In Zawiya, the government vehicle which had picked us up at the border was not allowed to drive us through the centre of town. Instead, we were sent on a long diversion, 12 or more miles (20km), to the south before we could regain the main west-east coastal road to Tripoli.

Was the road itself too damaged for us to pass? Were there, just possibly, some isolated pockets of resistance along the way?

Impossible to find out from our government minders.

No signs of uniformity

"No problem, no problem," was all they would say when I asked them why we could not drive through the middle of Zawiya. But clearly there was a major problem of some kind.

Every mile or so along our way, it seemed, there was a roadblock. The men who were in charge of them showed no signs of any uniformity.

Some wore desert camouflage, some wore army fatigues, some wore blue uniforms. Many were in civilian clothes but were obviously armed.

A few were too old to be soldiers. They might have been party activists, volunteers filling in for regulars who were needed elsewhere.

The rebels constantly maintain that most soldiers of African appearance in the pro-Gaddafi forces come not from the south of Libya, but from countries like Chad, Mauritania and Ghana. They claim that they are mercenaries, paid for by Colonel Gaddafi's government.

Military occupation

There were plenty of black soldiers along the road we travelled, and most of them wore noticeably different uniforms from the standard ones. One of them seemed to speak no Arabic when I called out to him - but there was no possibility of checking.

Once again, when I asked our minders, they answered with their usual mantra: "No problem, no problem."

Again and again, we saw huge holes blown in the walls of shops and houses by Col Gaddafi's artillery or tank guns.

There was plenty of anti-Gaddafi graffiti on the walls which was slowly being replaced by smaller, more regular lettering in green: slogans supporting the regime and claiming that 'the people' backed it.

In fact, every one of the towns we passed through was clearly under military occupation. Down many side streets, small groups of soldiers were hanging around, presumably making sure that no groups of demonstrators could gather. Often a tank or an armoured personnel carrier would be parked at some central point.

All the evidence is that the fight-back by the pro-Gaddafi forces has been highly effective to the west of Tripoli. This happened before the no-fly zone was established and the targeting of armoured vehicles and artillery began.

But it will be hard to drive Col Gaddafi's men out of Zuara, Sabratha and Zawiya a second time.