Conflict & Justice

Rebels move to starve Tripoli of fuel and food


Anti-Gaddafi forces claim victory in Zawiya, where control of the oil terminal may stand in the way of exports from oilfields held by Gaddafi. Photograph: Ben Curtis/AP

When the Libyan rebels say they have taken a city, it usually means they could take it in two or three days, or maybe weeks.

Often they add the word, Inshallah, Arabic for "God willing," at the end of the sentence, putting the whole statement in the conditional realm.

Rebel spokesmen said they had "taken" the eastern oil hub of Brega a few weeks ago. They said the same thing in April. In reality, today, they are still fighting through heavy mind fields to gain full control.

But claims in Zawiya in recent days sound different, mostly because of its proximity to the capital. The western town is so close and essential to Tripoli the rebels can literally turn off the oil tap to the capital. And thus the Inshallah, is becoming the affirmative— God wills it.

Today, rebels said they have cut off all four pipelines that transport gasoline and diesel to Tripoli. They probably haven't. But Tripoli has endured fuel lines lasting four or five days since early May. I used to hear this during my detention inside Al Jaidida prison in April.

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"Gaddafi has no fuel. He is finished," fellow prisoners would say.

Well, that was months ago. But now, it's not just the fantasy of a political prisoner. Rebels have taken the fuel lines that supplied those weakened pumps, or are about to. They also claim to be on the verge of cutting Tripoli from its two remaining supply routes, the AP reported today.

Then it will be a question of how much fuel and food Tripoli has stockpiled before its starving citizens and soliders begin to desert the Gaddafis wholesale.

Reuters splices the end game scenario in three ways: "Gaddafi supporters, starved out of fuel and other supplies could surrender or join the rebels; clandestine opposition members in the city could revolt; or Gaddafi could negotiate an exit strategy."

Rebels and Gaddafi representatives are conducting emergency meetings in Tunisia today, although both sides are denying it. There is probably a split within the family, as was evident when sons Saadi and Safe Islam reached out to European countries in early spring.

What's really interesting is the probability of a clandestine oppostion forming within the capital. A 70-page transition plan obtained by the Times of London details internal defections that are yet to activate. It claims that 800 Gaddafi government security officials have been recruited covertly to the rebel cause. A mass defection by high-ranking officials is considered "highly likely," the report said, with 70 percent of them judged to support the regime out of fear alone.

One political prisoner told me one of the prison managers said he secretly sided with them. Food and freedom to move from cell to cell dramatically improved around this time. That was in May. Surely whole swathes of Gaddafi forces are now ready to turn the moment they no longer fear a bullet in the head.