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ZAWIYA, Libya — The day Libyan rebels advanced into the strategic city of Zawiya, Moammar Gadhafi’s forces clamped down on the local hospital.
They forced doctors to perform hours of consecutive surgeries, put snipers on the roof and an anti-aircraft gun near the entrance, two doctors who managed to escape said Tuesday.
As the Libyan regime’s grip on this coastal city of 200,000 is slipping, stories are seeping out about the reign of fear and intimidation imposed here over the past five months.
Residents interviewed in rebel-controlled parts of Zawiya gave accounts of mass arrests in the preceding months. A woman said her son-in-law and two of his relatives were arrested and killed by Gadhafi agents. A rebel fighter said he was subjected to beatings and electric shocks.
Zawiya had risen up forcefully against Gadhafi when anti-regime protests swept the country in mid-February, but was reoccupied in a brutal crackdown in mid-March. Rebels pushed into the city on Saturday, but after four days of fighting Gadhafi’s soldiers still cling to positions in eastern areas, including the hospital.
Dr. Hamid al-Shawish, a 30-year-old surgeon, said the regime had clamped down hard on Zawiya since March, arresting anyone suspected of sympathizing with the rebels. At least 20 doctors and nurses were seized from the hospital, and some remain missing, al-Shawish said.
He and a colleague, gynecologist Mohammed al-Kum, said regime forces were a constant presence in the hospital, replacing the director with one of their own and ordering medical staff around.
On Saturday morning, there was an influx of dead and wounded regime soldiers, and civilian patients were ordered to leave the hospital to make room, the two doctors said. Troops closed down the pediatrics and gynecology wards, among others.
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The soldiers ordered doctors and nurses to stay on their jobs, according to al-Shawish, who said he performed 15 operations between 11 a.m. Saturday and 3 a.m. Sunday. He said three more surgeons worked on other floors.
Al-Shawish said that while he was working, armed soldiers wandered in an out of the emergency room. “Anyone who was not operating was told to operate,” said al-Shawish, but added that he did not have guns pointed at him.
Gadhafi’s men posted snipers on the roof and an anti-aircraft gun in a yard, right outside the window of the emergency room, the doctor said. Gadhafi’s forces fired randomly at nearby houses, but he did not hear incoming rebel fire, he said.
Al-Kum said he was able to sneak out of the hospital on Sunday. Al-Shawish said he recognized a soldier guarding the hospital gate as the father of an infant he had circumcised. After initially refusing to let the doctor go, the guard relented and let al-Shawish walk out Sunday, with a promise that he would return shortly.
Since their escape, the two doctors have been working at a clinic in Bir Moammar, a rebel-controlled village about eight kilometers (five miles) south of Zawiya.
Anger against the regime runs deep in Zawiya, where residents said regime supporters supplied Gadhafi soldiers with lists of suspected rebel sympathizers to arrest.
Abdel Moez Ramadan, a 20-year-old fighter, said he was imprisoned for three months, suffering beatings and electrical shock during the first 20 days. He said his interrogators demanded that he chant slogans in praise of Gadhafi.
After his release, he fled to the rebels’ mountain stronghold and joined the fight to free Zawiya, he said. “I want to take revenge for my country,” he said.
Jamila, a 48-year-old housewife, said her son-in-law, along with two of his relatives, was arrested and killed by Gadhafi agents in June. Her 22-year-old son was detained for nine days because he had cell phone footage of anti-Gadhafi protests, said Jamila, who did not want to give her last name for fear of retribution.
With fighting continuing in the city, it was impossible to verify these and other accounts independently.
Jamila said she and her family moved three times since Saturday, and are now staying at a daughter’s house on the outskirts of Zawiya. However, she said they might move again, because several rockets struck late Monday in a nearby orchard.
A 15-year-old boy in Jamila’s extended family said that during the past five months, he and his classmates were frequently ordered to participate in pro-Gadhafi marches. He said he could not stay away, noting that he knew of others his age who had been arrested, but that in a small show of defiance, he did not join the chanting.
When the hundreds of rebel fighters entered Zawiya on Saturday, the boy said he painted his lower left arm in green, red and black, the rebel colors, and waved at them, since he did not have a cloth flag.
The rebel push came from the south, part of a three-week-old offensive launched from their stronghold in Libya’s western mountains dozens of miles inland. With that advance, the rebels made some of their most significant territorial gains in the civil war and are now just 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Gadhafi’s stronghold, the capital of Tripoli. Rebel commanders have said they hope to take Tripoli by the end of the month.
Regime soldiers have been pounding Zawiya with Grad rockets, mortar rounds and artillery shells, sending many civilians fleeing south toward the safety of the mountain range. On Monday, 15 people were killed in an artillery strike.
And in a turning of the tables, rebels have begun hunting down Gadhafi sympathizers in Zawiya. On Monday, Khaled al-Azzawi, a 37-year-old teacher, sat at a desk on a sidewalk along the main road into the city from the south, compiling lists of names of regime supporters provided by city residents. Al-Azzawi said some 40 on a list of about 300 had already been arrested.
Several suspects were caught Tuesday and taken to a building next to the Bir Moammar clinic.
On Tuesday, al-Shawish said he believed Gadhafi’s 42-year-rule was almost over. “God willing, this is the end, and we will go to Tripoli,” he said, as the thuds of mortars and rockets were heard in the distance.
As the rebels push forward, there are new efforts by a U.N. envoy to Libya to negotiate an end to the civil war, according to a Tunisian security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Abdel-Elah al-Khatib, Jordan’s former foreign minister, arrived in the Tunisian capital of Tunis on Monday for separate meetings with representatives of the Gadhafi regime and the rebels, the Tunisian official said.
The envoy did not identify those he met or say what they discussed, speaking to reporters after a meeting Tuesday with Tunisian Foreign Minister Mouldi Kefi al-Khatib.
However, the Tunisian official said the discussions late Monday centered on a “peaceful transition” in Libya. The rebels reacted angrily to the proposal, with one member of their delegation throwing a shoe during the meeting to show his deep disdain.
The Tunisian security official said the U.N. envoy might also meet with a representative of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez’s envoy has been on the Tunisian isle of Djerba for the past few days.
A rebel spokesman in France denied that members of the rebels’ interim government, the National Transitional Council, participated in the Djerba meeting. Mansour Saif al-Nasr told RFI radio on Tuesday that “Libyan political personalities” were involved, but not NTC representatives.