TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Shooting rang out across a district of the Libyan capital on Friday as forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi tried to break up a crowd of protesters shouting “Gaddafi is the enemy of God!”
The demonstrators spilt out of the Murat Adha mosque in the Tajoura district of eastern Tripoli after Friday prayers, and several hundred of them began chanting for an end to Gaddafi’s forty years in power.
A few minutes later, pro-Gaddafi security forces in military fatigues and with green scarves around their heads arrived at the scene of the protest. “They fired tear gas. I heard shooting. People are scattering,” said a Reuters reporter.
Another reporter on the edge of the Tajoura district said heavy shooting could be heard and a convoy of 14 Toyota sports utility vehicles, with security forces on board, sped through a checkpoint towards the site of the protest.
Tripoli is Gaddafi’s principal stronghold after large swathes of the country rejected his rule, and the authorities have tried to portray it as a city going about its life as normal, but the protest punctured that image.
“This is the end for Gaddafi. It’s over. Forty years of crimes are over,” said Faragha Salim, an engineer at the protest in Tajoura.
Friday is the day of religious observance in the Muslim world when thousands of men assemble in the mosques to pray and listen to sermons. It can also be a flashpoint for outpourings of anger.
A revolt against Gaddafi’s four-decade rule has left the eastern side of the country, and several towns elsewhere, in rebel control. He is facing international condemnation over the hundreds killed in a crackdown on the revolt.
In rebel-held Zawiyah, about 50 km (30 miles) west of the Libyan capital, pro-Gaddafi forces attacked to try to stop people attending Friday prayers in the town, a rebel spokesman told Reuters by telephone.
Yousef Shagan said the two sides were exchanging fire on the outskirts of the town, and that two fighters loyal to Gaddafi had been killed.
“They attacked because they are trying to prevent people from joining Friday prayers. Gaddafi’s soldiers are fighting. Our people have encircled them in western Zawiyah,” he said.
The authorities tried to prevent foreign media from reporting independently on the protests in Tripoli.
Security guards stood in the way when journalists including Reuters reporters tried to walk out of the gates of the media hotel to travel to neighbourhoods in the capital where anti-Gaddafi protests are anticipated.
Officials later allowed them out of the hotel but only if they boarded buses with government drivers who were taking them to locations selected by the authorities.
A Libyan government spokesman said journalists’ movements were being restricted because their presence could trigger violence from what he described as affiliates of al Qaeda.
“These are exceptional circumstances. I know you’re going to talk about it and twist it the way you want,” said the spokesman, Mussa Ibrahim.
“We are preparing to pay this price of preventing you guys from reporting to avoid turning Tripoli into Baghdad.”
Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Giles Elgood