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Qaddafi Forces Shooting From Ambulances, Witnesses Say

A nurse comforts a patient at Al Jala Hospital in Benghazi

Tripoli, Libya – An increasingly gruesome picture began to emerge Saturday of the violent tactics used by the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi to quell protesters in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, with several witnesses confirming that forces loyal to the government had been shooting people from ambulances and using antiaircraft guns against crowds.

Witnesses to the violence in Tripoli, where a tense standoff held on Saturday, also said that the government had removed dead bodies as well as the wounded from hospitals in an effort to disguise the mounting death toll in the uprising against Col. Qaddafi sweeping Libya.

Col. Qaddafi’s forces had put down demonstrators, who had taken to the streets after Friday Prayers to mount their first major challenge to the government’s crackdown, with snipers from rooftops, buckshot, and tear gas, witnesses said. There were unconfirmed reports that an armed rebel force was approaching the city on Saturday.

In Tajoura, a neighborhood of the capital where there has been significant fighting since a peaceful demonstration there last Sunday, residents had barricaded a street with old television sets and cinderblocks to try to keep out pickup trucks full of men with machine guns. A doctor working at the local clinic here said he had seen 68 people killed and 150 injured in recent days of clashes, and that residents were braced for more violence.

A rebel officer who is coordinating an attack on Tripoli, Col. Tarek Saad Hussein, asserted in an interview that an armed volunteer force of about 2,000 men — including army defectors — was to arrive in Tripoli on Friday night. There was no way to confirm his claim.

Protesters in Tripoli said that they had heard a force was on its way from the eastern cities that had fallen to rebels, but that they had been stopped in Surt, a remaining Qaddafi stronghold halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi, the opposition-controlled city where the uprising began.

Colonel Hussein was especially angered at the reports of security forces’ firing on protesters after prayers. “They did not have weapons,” he said, speaking at an abandoned army base in the eastern city of Benghazi, which is firmly under rebel control. “They shot people outside the mosque.”

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Indeed, accounts of the bloodshed on Friday indicated that Colonel Qaddafi’s forces had deployed the same determined brutality as they had earlier in the week defending their leader, who has ruled for more than 40 years.

“They shoot people from the ambulances,” said one terrified resident, Omar, by telephone as he recalled an episode during the protests on Friday when one protester was wounded. “We thought they’d take him to the hospital,” he said, but the militiamen “shot him dead and left with a squeal.”

A precise death toll might be impossible. Omar said that friends who were doctors at a hospital in Tripoli saw bodies being removed from the morgue to conceal the death toll. Local residents told him that the bodies were being taken to beaches and burned. Omar did not want his full named used for fear of his life.

“We have no freedom here,” he said. “We want our freedom, too.”

Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch trying to confirm the number of fatalities, said she had heard widespread reports of security forces inside hospitals. Top officials of the biggest Tripoli hospitals were said to be loyal to Colonel Qaddafi and understating the casualties, she said.

The deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Ibrahim Dabbashi, had also said in New York on Friday that government forces had been shooting from ambulances, as he pleaded for international action to help stop the violence.

“Hundreds of people have been killed. We expect thousands to be killed” in Tripoli, he told reporters.

The Tripoli airport has become a refugee camp packed with thousands of people trying to flee. The floors inside are a carpet of flesh and blankets, including families with children. Outside, a thick wall of thousands of refugees was waiting to get in, and at least two guards were beating them back — one with a billy club and the other a whip.

The city had been cleansed Thursday night for a visit by a number of foreign journalists the Qaddafi government has invited. Billboards with pictures of Colonel Qaddafi that were burned and defaced last week have all been restored, witnesses said. “It is a stage set they built overnight,” one resident said.

Witnesses in Tripoli said that the streets were lined with extra police officers in riot gear before Friday Prayer services, and militia members patrolled the area near Bab al-Aziziya, Colonel Qaddafi’s military base.

A resident who spoke with friends in several neighborhoods said the police opened fire on worshipers after the prayers, killing at least five people in Siyahiya, in western Tripoli, and several other people in Zawiat al-Dahmani, in the city’s center.

There were also reports of gunfire in Fashloom and the Souq al-Jumaa area. Those reports could not be immediately confirmed.

It was no longer possible to reach Tripoli’s central Green Square, the scene of many of the demonstrations — and much of the slaughter. The area was surrounded by checkpoints and barricades patrolled by members of the armed forces, Omar and other witnesses said.

Indeed, earlier Friday, Libyan state television showed Colonel Qaddafi speaking from a parapet overlooking Green Square and addressing a crowd of supporters. There was no sign of resistance, only the sight of thousands of young loyalists. There was no way to know if the broadcast was live or pre-recorded.

“This is the formidable, invincible force of youth,” Colonel Qaddafi said. “Life without dignity is useless.” He blew kisses to the crowd and urged them to fight to the death. “Every individual will be armed,” he said. “Libya will become a hell.”

Libyan state television also announced that the government would give $400 to every family and raise the salaries of state employees by as much as 150 percent, in what appeared to be an attempt to buy support.

But the gesture was too late to stop more painful defections. Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdurrahman Shalgham, a longtime friend of Colonel Qaddafi, denounced him Friday in New York, comparing him with Pol Pot and Hitler.

Libya’s entire Arab League mission resigned for the same reasons on Friday, as did the country’s mission in Geneva.

Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, one of Colonel Gaddafi’s top security official and a cousin, left Wednesday evening, it was revealed, for Egypt, where he denounced Colonel Qaddafi’s “grave violations to human rights.”

The protesters in Tripoli appeared emboldened by promises of help from rebels outside the capital and the surprisingly strong showing of protesters in cities close to the capital on Thursday against Colonel Qaddafi’s forces, which brought the rebellion to the capital’s doorstep.

A potentially large force of armed fighters sympathetic to the protesters was now converging on Tripoli, according to military officials and soldiers who had defected to the rebels.

Colonel Hussein said the force consisted of active duty, retired soldiers and army reservists who had joined the rebel side. It was sent to the capital in small groups, he said, adding that they carried a mixture of light arms and heavier weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades.

He did not offer more details about the size of the groups, or their route. The road to Tripoli from the country’s eastern cities is blocked to the rebels by the city of Surt, Colonel Qaddafi’s hometown.

Colonel Hussein said he was negotiating with tribal leaders and military officers in Surt to abandon the government, or at least not stand in the way of the rebels. “We’re appealing to the people of Surt to help us stop the bloodshed,” he said.

Army soldiers stationed at a barracks near Benghazi said on Friday that 200 to 250 of their colleagues had left the barracks in recent days, headed to Tripoli to fight Colonel Qaddafi’s forces.

A group of 60 or so officers stood outside another barracks in Benghazi on Friday, saying they were volunteering to go fight in Tripoli. Colonel Hussein said they were joining the battle because protesters were being killed. “In cold blood,” said Colonel Hussein.

Asked what would happen if Colonel Qaddafi was deposed or killed, Colonel Hussein said Libyans wanted a democracy.

“It was our duty to enter the fight,” he added. “The regime started this. They are the ones who brought the revolution.”

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Tripoli, and Sharon Otterman from Cairo. Kareem Fahim contributed reporting from Benghazi, Libya.

This article ” Qaddafi Forces Shooting From Ambulances, Witnesses Say” originally appeared at The New York Times.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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