Robert Fisk reports from Tripoli

The first foreign dispatch from Libya’s blood-soaked capital:

Up to 15,000 men, women and children besieged Tripoli’s international airport last night, shouting and screaming for seats on the few airliners still prepared to fly to Muammar Gaddafi’s rump state, paying Libyan police bribe after bribe to reach the ticket desks in a rain-soaked mob of hungry, desperate families. Many were trampled as Libyan security men savagely beat those who pushed their way to the front.

Among them were Gaddafi’s fellow Arabs, thousands of them Egyptians, some of whom had been living at the airport for two days without food or sanitation. The place stank of faeces and urine and fear. Yet a 45-minute visit into the city for a new airline ticket to another destination is the only chance to see Gaddafi’s capital if you are a “dog” of the international press.

There was little sign of opposition to the Great Leader. Squads of young men with Kalashnikov rifles stood on the side roads next to barricades of upturned chairs and wooden doors. But these were pro-Gaddafi vigilantes – a faint echo of the armed Egyptian “neighbourhood guard” I saw in Cairo a month ago – and had pinned photographs of their leader’s infamous Green Book to their checkpoint signs.

There is little food in Tripoli, and over the city there fell a blanket of drab, sullen rain. It guttered onto an empty Green Square and down the Italianate streets of the old capital of Tripolitania. But there were no tanks, no armoured personnel carriers, no soldiers, not a fighter plane in the air; just a few police and elderly men and women walking the pavements – a numbed populous. Sadly for the West and for the people of the free city of Benghazi, Libya’s capital appeared as quiet as any dictator would wish.

But this is an illusion. Petrol and food prices have trebled; entire towns outside Tripoli have been torn apart by fighting between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces. In the suburbs of the city, especially in the Noufreen district, militias fought for 24 hours on Sunday with machine guns and pistols, a battle the Gadaffi forces won. In the end, the exodus of expatriates will do far more than street warfare to bring down the regime.

The Guardian reports:

Muammar Gaddafi was looking increasingly isolated after damaging defections by senior regime figures and key military commanders and units as the uprising spread closer to Tripoli.

Malta denied a report that Gaddafi’s daughter, Aisha, was on board a Libyan plane refused permission to land on the island on Wednesday. But Menas, a respected London Middle East consultancy, said the leader’s wife, daughter, daughters-in-law and grandchildren had left Libya for an unknown destination.

Mass protests erupted in Misurata, a Mediterranean port and the country’s third-largest city, and violence was reported in Sebrata and Zawiya, which are also in western Libya and closer to Tripoli.

Benghazi and much of the east of the country have now been lost to the government. Misurata is near Sirte, the leader’s home town, where a key tribe has reportedly come out in support of what is being called the 17 February revolution.

Al-Jazeera TV reported that tribes in the Azzintan and Nalut areas, also in the west, had come out against Gaddafi. Oil facilities were now under their protection.

Libyan and Arab sources said the biggest blow to Gaddafi so far had been the defection of his interior minister and veteran loyalist, Abdel-Fatah Younes al-Obeidi, who called on the army on Tuesday to “serve the people and support the revolution and its legitimate demands”.

But the whereabouts of other senior comrades remains unclear. Mustafa al-Kharroubi, a leading figure in the regime’s old guard, is rumoured to have left Tripoli. There are question marks too about another loyalist, Khweildi al-Hmeidi, whose daughter is married to the leader’s wayward son Sa’adi.

In another blow to the Libyan leader, his former justice minister, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who stepped down this week, was quoted as saying today that Gaddafi personally ordered the Lockerbie bombing, in which 270 people were killed.

Another departure was of Youssef Sawan, who quit as director of the Gaddafi International Charitable Foundation run by the leader’s son, the supposedly reformist-minded Saif al-Islam.

Libyan exile sources also confirmed the defection of a senior figure in the revolutionary committees, Ali al-Sahouli, who warned that Gaddafi would sabotage the country’s infrastructure including oil installations, power stations and banks.

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