Gaddafi staying put in Libya – Zuma

JOHANNESBURG – Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is not prepared to leave Libya and is prepared to seek a political solution to the conflict in the country, South African President Jacob Zuma said on Tuesday.\r\n

Zuma said in a statement issued after meeting Gaddafi in Tripoli on Monday the Libyan leader had called for end to NATO bombings.

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“He emphasised that he was not prepared to leave his country, despite the difficulties,” the statement released by the South African Presidency said. “The personal safety of Col Gaddafi is of concern.”

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Heavy Random Shelling

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Random shelling drives Libyan families into caves.

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Mohammed was 45 years old and a police officer when he built his house and moved up the hill from the cave he grew up in. 

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Now he has returned, a 74-year-old pensioner with 12 members of his family seeking shelter from the random shelling of this rebel-held town by forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

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The desert outskirts of Zintan, at the eastern end of Libya’s rebel-controlled Western Mountains, have been shelled repeatedly since the uprising against Gaddafi began in February.

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More than 40,000 people have fled the mountain plateau, and over the past week the shelling has edged closer to the centre of Zintan, the rebel command centre for this theatre of Libya’s three-month-old war.

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Some families have taken to sleeping underground, returning to the cave dwellings their ancestors inhabited before them, carved into the rocky hillside of Zintan’s Ayal Hadiya neighbourhood.

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The sense of a step back in time has been sharpened by an electricity blackout for the past five days across much of the Western Mountains.

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Many families are drawing water from wells by hand and lighting their homes with candles. Food and fuel are already in short supply, entering only through a single rebel-held border crossing with Tunisia more than 200 km (125 miles) from Zintan.

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“Nobody wants to live like this,” said Mohammed’s wife, Aisha.

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“There has been a lot of heavy shelling. My sons go to fight, so we come down here,” she said, sitting on cushions in the cave, its cold stone walls offering some relief from the oppressive heat outside. 

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SCARE TACTICS

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Gaddafi’s forces hold the desert plains and, at their closest point, sit level with Zintan in Ryayna, some 10-15 km (5-10 miles) from the town centre.

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With their planes grounded by NATO, forces loyal to Gaddafi are struggling to retake the high ground from the rebels.

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They have resorted to shelling the rebel areas with what appear to be Grad rockets. Some hit homes, but most thump into the desert in a tactic that brings little military gain.

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In Zintan, the thud of artillery could be heard around the town at intervals of several hours through the night between Sunday and Monday.

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Local people say Gaddafi’s forces are using civilian buildings as shields.

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From his rooftop, a man who gave his name as Ahmed said he had watched artillery being fired from between houses near a mosque and a water tower in Ryayna, positions picked to avoid the strikes of circling NATO jets.

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“We see it very clearly,” he said, “especially at night.”

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Some rebel commanders say the power cuts and the uptick in shelling point to an imminent ground offensive by pro-Gaddafi forces against Zintan. 

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Others believe the government army is as incapable of taking Zintan as the rebels are of advancing on the Libyan capital, Tripoli, 150 km (90 miles) northeast.

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“I don’t think this is the tactic,” Fethi al-Ayab, a senior rebel in Zintan, said of the possibility of a Gaddafi ground assault. “It’s just about making the people suffer more. It’s to scare people into leaving for Tunisia,” he said.

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His wife and nine-month-old child left for Tunisia ten days ago. Few men here have plans to leave.

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“When we hear the call from the mosque, we head straight to the front,” said 25-year-old Khaled Zentani, who moved to a cave to escape the shelling of his own neighbourhood.

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He and his brother cook on a wood fire and draw water by hand from a nearby well.

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“We won’t leave here, we will die here,” he said.