After a vicious six-day battle against rebel forces, Muammar Gaddafi's military on Wednesday might have retaken
finally crushed the critical oil-refinery town of Zawiyah, in a fight which has killed scores of a few people and wounded hundreds an unknown number of others.
Who can tell what happened in Zawiyah's lethal war this past week? Certainly not me, nor the 120 or so other foreign journalists in the Libyan capital of Tripoli who have been invited by Gaddafi's regime to tell its side of the story.
For a week, the government's press handlers had forbidden journalists from traveling the 30 miles to the fighting and several who tried to sneak off to Zawiyah unofficially were arrested, with one BBC television crew severely assaulted by security forces (more on that below). Three times, our handlers loaded us into vans and a coach bus, saying they were taking us to Zawiyah, only to change their minds. Then at about 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday, they bundled about 40 of us into vans and tore off toward Zawiyah at a death-defying 110 m.p.h. They assured us that the military had routed all the al-Qaeda fighters, whom Gaddafi insists instigated Libya's three-week revolt.
Around midnight, we pulled into Zawiyah's soccer stadium. As we clambered out, there were two loud explosions on the field, followed by several smaller ones, which sent many of us ducking for cover. But no, these were not signs of combat remember, Zawiyah's battle is ostensibly over. It was a fireworks display in a victory party for about 200 residents gathered on the stands who wore Gaddafi-green scarves and chanted their love for the leader. The state-run Libyan Television filmed the celebration as well as the foreign journalists covering it. "The citizens and the soldiers worked together to kick out the troublemakers," said Ayman Kikly, a 29-year-old soldier in camouflage. "[The rebels] had heavy weapons with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and some anti-aircraft weapons."
That did not square with the message from other residents in the stands, who said the rebels were easily defeated, with none of Gaddafi's soldiers killed and little loss of life on the rebels' side (though no one could explain where the surviving rebels had gone). "The houses have no destruction," said Abdul Khalek Harari, 20, yelling over the blasts of the fireworks. "The troublemakers blocked roads and burned tires, so that's the only damage you see."
So what did happen in Zawiyah, where fighting closed Libya's second biggest refinery and mobile-phone connections have been blocked since March 3?
By March 5, the town's central square "was reminiscent of Mogadishu," Somalia's war-torn capital, says Martin Fletcher, a veteran correspondent for the Times of London, who snuck into Zawiyah that day. He says he saw evidence of widespread attacks against civilians. "There were 20 graves in the middle of the square. The streets were littered with burning and burned cars. Apartment buildings were riddled with bullet and mortar holes. We were ferried around by rebels in an ambulance with a bullet hole in it." Doctors told Fletcher that during the three previous days, 30 people had been killed and about 70 injured.
On March 7, three journalists from the BBC's Arabic channel who tried to retrace Fletcher's route to Zawiyah were nabbed by soldiers at a checkpoint outside the town and locked in a cage for several hours. While in custody, Feras Killani, the BBC's Palestinian-Syrian correspondent familiar to many Libyan viewers, had a hood taped around his head before he was beaten and kicked with boots, plastic pipes and fists for hours. The team was held in a security detention center in central Tripoli. There Killani was subjected to more hours of assaults and finally a mock execution, which included the two other journalists and others in custody. "He pointed the [gun] barrel at each of us," recalled Chris Cobb-Smith, the sole British member of the team, in a detailed account shared with foreign journalists in Tripoli. "When he got to me at the end of the line, he pulled the trigger twice. The shots went past my ear."
During their night in jail, the team members encountered several Zawiyah residents who said they'd been arrested on suspicion of supporting the rebels or for talking to foreign press. "Throughout the night they could hear the screams of people being tortured," said the BBC's Middle East bureau chief, Paul Danahar. The journalists flew to London after their release, publishing their account only after leaving Tripoli.
Two other reporters who have been missing since Sunday, apparently after trying to enter Zawiyah, could be in a far worse situation. The Guardian's award-winning journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and the Brazilian journalist Andrei Netto were last heard from while traveling to the battle zone unofficially, with no government escort.
For those of us still reporting in Tripoli, the obstacles to teasing out the truth are formidable. Libyans risk serious consequences for expressing their true feelings to us, and we are expected to move around the capital only with handlers. The regime's crude attempts to dictate its message to foreign journalists risks a serious backlash by motivating reporters to characterize unfairly Gaddafi's officials as buffoons and possibly even leading Western leaders to underestimate Gaddafi's strength. On Thursday, France recognized the rebels' Transitional National Council as Libya's new government.
At the nightly government press briefing on March 6, Libyan officials handed journalists copies of Foreign Minister Mousa Kusa's letter to the U.N. Security Council President, Li Baodong of China, in which he strongly protested the U.N. resolution against Gaddafi's military assault. Journalists instantly seized upon a paragraph deep in the letter that stated, "No restrictions are imposed on the foreign media. Media correspondents work freely in Libya and all the necessary facilities are provided for them." The loud guffaws among the journalists all but drowned out the official's briefing from the podium.