Libya, Feb 24

Reporting today centered on Zawiya, a town of maybe 150,000 people which is about 20km from Tripoli’s westernmost suburbs, maybe 40km from the center. Qaddafi dispatched a column of gunmen to shoot up protesters gathered at the town’s mosque, and then phoned in to state television to chide them, “Shame on you, people of Zawiya: Control your children.” The attack came in the morning, and the mosque’s minaret was hit with a heavy machinegun or an anti-tank rocket. Death toll estimates range from 16 to 100. Then the attackers appear to have fallen back. Jazeera is reporting that army officers have opened up stores of weapons and are distributing them to the populace. Other video shows demonstrators holding the streets and apparently commandeering what I think is either a self-propelled artillery piece or a light tank.

The probable massacre of dozens of people is obviously a terrible atrocity. But from the point of view of trying to gauge what will happen next, it may be significant that Qaddafi could not hit Zawiya with anything heavier. It’s the fourth largest city, a short distance from Tripoli, and one would think that if he had the spare troops, regime forces would not simply have raided, but would have made an effort to retake the center of town and suppress the protesters/rebels.

Reports of the Zawiya attack also do not mention anything heavier than anti-aircraft guns or anti-tank missiles, the kind of thing that you might be able to mount on a Land Rover. I would not care to have either type of weapon fired at me, but it is noteworthy that the regime does not appear to very many running tanks available. Libya had a paper strength of about 1000 operational tanks, plus infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers, etc. Many of those would have been parcelled out to army units which are not necessarily under Qaddafi’s control, but you would expect a disproportional number to be given to his core regime-support units. I have seen video of a BMP-1 of the “Armored Deterrance Battalion” that was captured at Benghazi airport, and some tanks in Benghazi that were part of defecting army units, but I have not seen much other evidence of the use of armor. I doubt that that Qaddafi is holding back, so maybe the core loyalist units do not have the mechanical skills to keep the tanks running. (They break down very easily with indifferent maintenance). Qaddafi’s air offensive also seems to have run out of steam very quickly.

Again, however, I wouldn’t want to make too much of this. Libya’s desert expanses are huge, and there is always the possibility that Qaddafi is bringing up reinforcements from a remote base in the south. But for the time being, his ability to retake towns outside Tripoli seems quite limited.

Addendum: Nicholas Kristof contacts two Libyan military officers and describes the kind of stand-off that is likely taking place in many units there right now — distaste for Qaddafi, but a reluctance to actually mutiny.

I am still updating a Google map showing control over towns here.

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