People celebrating in Tripoli (photo: AP)
The Battle for Tripoli

Libya's Zero Hour

As rebels secure military control of Gaddafi's compound in the capital, Tripoli, the fate of the old regime would appear to be sealed. Among the Libyan people, joy at the now very real prospect of an end to the dictator's reign of terror is great. Alfred Hackensberger reports from Tripoli

Muammar al-Gaddafi called them "rats that hate Libya, that make children orphans and women widows". They had been unceremoniously eliminated, the dictator assured viewers in an audio message broadcast by Libyan state television on Monday morning. But Gaddafi was very wrong indeed. In just a few hours, the rebels had Tripoli under their control. The Libyan army put up almost no resistance. Residents of the capital celebrated their liberation on Green Square, a location thus far reserved for official celebrations by the regime.

On Tuesday (23 August), battles involving a handful of Gaddafi loyalists continued in the west of Tripoli, location of the legendary Bab Al Aziza compound that used to house Gaddafi and his family. The current whereabouts of the ex-dictator are unknown. All reports that Gaddafi has fled abroad have so far turned out to be incorrect. Three of his sons, including the man regarded as his successor, Saif al-Islam, were reportedly arrested. However, Saif al-Islam has since appeared on several international television channels in unexplained circumstances denying that this is the case. Another of Gaddafi's sons, Mohammed, was able to escape house arrest.

As the uprising began last Saturday in Tripoli, the rebels were calling it the "zero hour". Machine gun fire and explosions could be heard in the Libyan capital. Following iftar, the breaking of the fast during the month of Ramadan, thousands of city residents took to the streets to protest against the Gaddafi regime.

Imams call for revolt

Armed rebels in Libya (photo: dpa)
According to Alfred Hackensberger, it was the rebels from the Nafusa mountains who made the decisive push; poetic justice for an ethnic minority of Berbers oppressed for so long by Muammar al-Gaddafi


Instead of issuing a call to prayer, it is alleged that imams at the city's mosques used their loudspeakers to drum up support for the uprising. Among the demonstrators were armed men who engaged in gun-fights with soldiers from the Libyan army. Particularly heavy clashes were reported in Tajoura, a district that was already the scene of confrontation at the start of the revolts against Gaddafi in February. There was also an exchange of fire between rebels and government troops around the Migati airfield situated in the centre of Tripoli. This is a small airfield used to receive official guests. "This was all planned in advance," said Abdel Hafiz Ghoga from the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Benghazi. "We have spent a long time preparing this in coordination with the fighters, who are marching on the capital from the south, north, west and east."

No one believed that the campaign could be carried off so quickly and meet with so little resistance. The rebels had already proclaimed the beginning of the revolution in the capital a number of times. When machine gun fire was heard at night in April of this year, reports came in that rebels had attacked army checkpoints and had gained control of several areas on the outskirts of Tripoli. At that point, however, the uprising did not spread across the entire city, as had been signalled by the rebels.

Only last Friday, Saif al-Islam confidently announced on state television: "The revolts will not succeed in Libya. We will never hoist the white flag. That's totally impossible. It's our country and we will never leave it."

"Cowardly rats"

But at the very latest, the fate of the Gaddafi regime was sealed when the rebels cut off all supply lines to Tripoli. Food became scarce and expensive. Power outages occurred with greater frequency; fuel had already been a scarce commodity for months. Banks and government offices remained shut for the most part. In addition, NATO fighter planes dropped bombs on the city on a daily basis. Thousands of civilians fled the capital, afraid that the battle for Tripoli could begin at any time. "The soldiers at one checkpoint called us cowardly rats," reported one refugee. "They sent us back again, but I got past them via a secret route. Now we're free at last."

Boundless joy and celebrations in Benghazi (photo: photo alliance/dpa)
People in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi give vent to their joy


Abdel Salam Jalloud was also able to escape in the tide of refugees. He is a former member of the junta that toppled the Libyan King Idris in 1969 and brought Gaddafi to power. For two decades, Jalloud remained the nation's most important political figure after the dictator himself.

But he fell out of favour in the early 1990s for allegedly disagreeing with Gaddafi on several occasions. His passport was confiscated and he was completely excluded from public life. Gaddafi's former ally was able to relocate to Zintan, in the Nafusa mountains. The rebels' most effective military action was launched from this plateau, which is mainly populated by Berbers. They drove all Gaddafi's troops into the mountains and advanced more than 100 kilometres to the Mediterranean coast during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. They seized Zawiyah, a strategically important location on the road to the Tunisian border, and the site of the nation's only functioning oil refinery. A capture of far-reaching symbolic significance. Zawiyah is just 50 kilometres from Tripoli, and its seizure issued a clear signal that the end of the Gaddafi regime was nigh.

Final push from the Nafusa mountains

In eastern Libya, rebel militias were up to that point still 180 kilometres from the capital. It was the rebels from the west, based in the Nafusa mountains, who give the dictator the last push – almost ironic in view of the fact that Gaddafi discriminated against them as an ethnic Berber minority and banned their language, Amazigh.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi (photo: AP)
On Tuesday (23 August), several television stations broadcast footage of Saif al-Islam denying the rebel victory: "We have broken the backbone of the rebels," he told BBC reporters

​​"We are happy," said Mohamad Glaawit of the Transitional Council, speaking from the village of Galaa in the Nafusa mountains. "We planned it two months ago and it all worked out just as we intended." Even the uprising in the capital went according to plan, Glaawit added with a smile. "Thereby preventing a bloody street battle and avoiding the deaths of many Libyans," he added.

The key to the success of the rebels from the Nafusa mountains lay in their unity, organisation and discipline. In battle, they followed the commands of their leaders, a group made up of long-serving officers of the Libyan army, most of whom could draw on their experience from the front during the Chadian-Libyan conflict (1978–87). For a long time they fought without decisive help from NATO. Although they were under perpetual attack from Grad rockets, they drove Gaddafi's troops back from the plateau.

In eastern Libya, on the other hand, various militias are working alongside one another, albeit with ideological differences and under the command of a variety of political figures or tribal leaders. The disjointed nature of this regional grouping became evident with the murder of Abdel Fattah Younes on 28 July. The death of the rebels' supreme commander was the work of an Islamic militia that kidnapped him, shot him and burned his corpse in a car together with the bodies of two of his aides.

Up to that point, even militia loyal to Gaddafi were able to operate undisturbed on rebel territory. In coastal regions, vegetation was also an impediment to military progress. The Libyan army was better able to conceal its tanks and artillery from NATO fighter jets among trees and in forests. This was barely possible on the plateau that extends from the Nafusa mountains to Tripoli. In just a few days, NATO was able to disable the tanks and artillery that might have halted the rebels' advance from the mountains.

Alfred Hackensberger

© 2011

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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