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Tripoli rebels rein in gun use in city awash in weapons

After unintended casualties from celebratory shootings in Tripoli, and with many ordinary citizens carrying firearms, rebels are taking new steps to limit gun use.

A man waves a Kingdom of Libya flag during a celebration rally at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli on Sept. 9. Fighters sent by Libya's new rulers entered one of the last towns loyal to ousted leader Muammar Qaddafi on Friday and fought street-to-street battles in what could mark the start of a final showdown against bastions of Qaddafi control.

Suhaib Salem/Reuters

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As rebel forces moved on Libya’s capital three weeks ago, the people of Tripoli prepared for the worst. They expected that Muammar Qaddafi would somehow “burn” the capital as he fell and state TV said the rebels would slaughter them.

Those apocalyptic fears have so far failed to materialize. Instead, three weeks after Mr. Qaddafi went into hiding, the celebrations continue. Now, the top cause of casualties in Tripoli is the number of bullets fired joyfully into the air and then falling down on residents.

As the shooting erupted at dusk in Qaddafi’s old Tripoli compound, which thousands of curious Libyans visit every day to gawk at and spray paint across the ruins of their fallen dictator, one older couple could not get away quickly enough.

“The bullets that go up will come down, and kill you,” said Ali Salim al-Haji, behind the wheel as he inched forward with his wife Aziza through the traffic that clogged every dark road of the vast wrecked compound. “Shooting bullets in the sky for no reason; it’s not for families.”

“But in the end, thank God, Qaddafi is gone,” said Aziza, unable to hide her happiness.

Her husband agreed: “Even if you die now from the bullets everywhere, it’s no problem.”

'We need to remove the weapons'

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Libya’s new rulers, the National Transitional Council (NTC), are trying to stop spontaneous shooting into the air. They are also beginning to register weapons and bring anti-Qaddafi forces and militia under a unified military banner.

Progress has been made. But doctors at the Tripoli Central Hospital – the main emergency center for the capital – said this week that they were still receiving five to 10 cases a day of people hit in the head, shoulders, and lower limbs by indirect fire.

“We have many cases of injured and killed from falling bullets,” says Dr. Rajab al-Osta, calling stray bullets the "No. 1 reason” for admittance to emergency rooms. “Everywhere, we need to remove the weapons … . People are more educated now, due to many killed and wounded.”

The NTC sent a public service message to all mobile phones on Sept. 5: “To secure civilians, and to improve services, it’s forbidden to shoot bullets into the air inside cities.”

Officials have also warned against such exuberant celebrations, at a time when Qaddafi loyalists still hold cities like Sirte and Bani Walid, for which deadlines for peaceful surrender set by anti-Qaddafi forces expire on Saturday.

"What Libyans have accomplished is an unprecedented achievement in modern recent history," acting premier Mahmoud Jibril said at his first press conference in Tripoli late Thursday. He warned that the "battle for liberation is not finished yet," and call on all Libyans – especially young people – to unify and "not attack each other" during national reconciliation.

“Unfortunately, the guys are very excited and happy with their guns, so they start shooting” into the air, says Gen. Omar al-Hariri, the NTC's senior military official based in Tripoli. "We don’t have a major problem with the shooting, but for sure it’s disturbing. We’re trying to control it, but these things have to be done step by step.”

“The national army will start in a short while,” General Hariri told the Monitor. “Most of the civilians will go back to their jobs. The rest, if they want to stay as soldiers and carry guns, then they have to be enrolled in the army. It’s not a problem because they are all nationalists, and they all understand the sensitivity of the period we are going through.”

Ian Martin, the top United Nations envoy for Libya, noted the proliferation of weapons during a visit to Tripoli this week.

“It’s obvious that registering and getting under control the very large number of weapons that have been at large is not going to be a quick or easy task,” said Mr. Martin. “But the threat of weapons depends upon people’s motives to use them. And what is important is that a political process moves forward in a way in which there will not be groups that have any intention of resorting to arms.”

A city armed like never before

Among civilians carrying guns today is Naiem Kamal Mansouri, a computer scientist who never touched a weapon until he rose up – his father alongside him – to take control of the Libyan state-run TV offices near their home. He recalls how 15 friends died from sniper bullets during the takeover; those who survived camped in front of the building for four days.

Today, Mr. Mansouri wears camouflage trousers and military boots found in a uniform store in the TV offices; guns were found there, too. Rebel fighters from other cities have largely left Tripoli, for other front lines.

But Qaddafi’s policy of handing out weapons to supporters, to hunt down what he called rebel “rats” during the months of conflict, has left the capital armed like never before.

“It was free; they all had a green light to do whatever they wanted” with the guns, says Mansouri.

Handling of the issue by anti-Qaddafi forces could not be more different. The NTC has been increasingly strict about who is allowed to carry weapons, and when.

“Even the extra people with weapons are using them at checkpoints, then leave them there for the next shift," says Mansouri. “Only those with an ID and a mission are allowed to carry them … . Once the NTC comes here, and there is security in front of the TV station, we will go.”

NTC officials say that the leadership of the anti-Qaddafi military and police forces are consulting daily and “even late into the night” to solve the problem, according to Aref al-Nayed, head of the NTC stabilization team.

“We are emerging with a unified structure, a unified command-and-control,” said Mr. Nayed. He noted that men and women, young and old, have been frequently on the streets, often late into the night despite extensive shooting into the air, with little fear for their security.

“The fact that people can go about the city and celebrate in such joy means that all the young people from the various military teams that are on the ground are responsible Libyans who love Libya, who are unified in their love of Libya, and who are at the service of the people,” said Nayed. “We are seeing utmost cooperation from all them … with the executive team and the NTC, in order to achieve tranquility not only in the capital, but throughout the country.”


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