TRIPOLI, Aug 25 – Libyan rebel fighters on Thursday stocked up with guns and ammunition abandoned by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces to attack Tripoli’s Abu Salim district, a hide-out of snipers loyal to the elusive leader.
“There has been shooting from Abu Salim since 7am (0500 GMT),” said Ahmed al-Mahishy. “All the attacks come from snipers.”
Before rebels took Tripoli, Abu Salim, a neighbourhood where pristine green flags raised in support of Gaddafi’s regime still flap in the wind, was best known for its political prison.
It is now the home of loyalist snipers who keep residents pinned down in their homes.
Fighters gathered at Al-Nasr forest near Gaddafi’s Bab Al-Aziziyah compound where rebels found stockpiles of weapons and munitions buried in deep trenches covered by green metal sheets.
“We are here to stock up on munitions before heading to Abu Salim,” said rebel fighter Abdulla Omran, who descended from the Nafusa mountain town of Ganaima to join the fighting in Tripoli.
Many of the fighters hailed from Libya’s third city of Misrata which was besieged for more than two months by forces loyal to Gaddafi and was recovered by rebels through costly street-to-street battles.
“The majority of us today are from Misrata. We are taking munitions so we can win the battle of Abu Salim,” a low-income neighbourhood rich in Gaddafi supporters, said Abdullah Bishar, a fighter from Misrata.
The rebels have been fighting for full-control of the capital since Sunday.
“We’ve found Kalashnikovs, TNT, machine-guns,” said Ali Mohammed from Misrata. “We found cluster bombs and other strange weapons. And to think this place was meant to become a zoo.”
Rebels crammed crates of ammunition into the passenger seats of pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers. Squabbles broke out over who should take what and who was in charge.
“We are in the middle of war so we can’t register every person who takes weapons but we do check for ID cards issued by rebel brigades,” Mohammed said.
“Rebel commanders have given as lists with the names of members of Gaddafi’s forces and residents know who were with Gaddafi’s forces. They know who killed, who didn’t” said Ali Sultan, 24, also from Misrata.
Rebels say their top priority now is to cleanse the capital of snipers who have instilled fear in residents — particularly those in Abu Salim and along the road to the airport — who live within firing range.
“They are human shields forced to stay home,” said Omar al-Halabi, a Tripoli resident.
Doctors at the military hospital, which came under rebel control on Monday, say they are treating a daily average of 50 patients — the majority of them fighters – with gunshot wounds.
A veterinary doctor turned volunteer surgeon at a makeshift clinic in the Gurjy area battled on Wednesday to treat the toe of a man reportedly shot by a sniper while refuelling his car near Abu Salim.
“We have to do this this step by step. First we have to clear Tripoli and Abu Salim from snipers. We have given them 48 hours to surrender,” said Misrata fighter Ali Omar, 24.
Rebels at Al-Nasr forest on Thursday were forced to retreat by sniper fire coming from Abu Salim where a tall, dark column of smoke towered over the area at 12 pm.
“It is all heavy weapons there. We cannot just walk into that neighbourhood with light weapons,” said rebel fighter Ali Sultan, 31.
Rebels said they were planning to launch an offensive on Abu Salim in an attack coordinated by the top commanders of troops who have streamed into the city since Saturday.
“There are no attacks on Abu Salim for now. But our leaders are meeting and we are preparing to attack it from three fronts: the east, west and south,” said Hajab Majoub, 31, also from Misrata.
“The date of the attack has not been set but it will be before the end of Ramadan,” the Muslim holy month of fasting that end next week, said one rebel fighter, Abdullah Jarushi.
“We are going to liberate Tripoli, dar dar, sheber sheber, zenga zenga,” said another rebel, Ahmed Sbay, mocking Gaddafi’s threat against protesters who dared to come out and challenge his four decades of rule in February.