03/28/2011 02:09 am ET | Updated May 27, 2011

Tripoli Battle Looms As Libya Rebels Advance Through Gaddafi Hometown

(Reuters) - Outside the impenetrable walls of Muammar Gaddafi's compound in Tripoli, fuel shortages and endless queues are compounding an atmosphere of gloom in a city already worn out by weeks of conflict.

Rebel forces are advancing fast toward Gaddafi's biggest stronghold, and ordinary people in the capital -- regardless of their political views -- are fearful of what is to come.


Tripoli lives to the sound of explosions and anti-aircraft gunfire as Western air strikes continue, and the new reality has emboldened some to express their frustrations more openly.

"The situation is getting worse and worse. I am a simple person. I don't know why," said Radwan, a man in his 40s, as he lined up to buy fuel at a petrol station in central Tripoli.

"Everything is hard. There is a problem with food, even with bread. You can't buy bread easily. I buy flour and I make my own bread. I am worried. There is a serious problem."

At one Tripoli filling station, hundreds of honking cars formed a queue of more than one kilometer long on Sunday. Exhausted motorists waited for hours to fill up their tanks.

A makeshift sign at another gas station said: "There is no petrol today. God knows when."

Most people waited patiently, the engines of their cars switched off. Some sat in the shade of large trees, smoking. One car ran out of petrol in the middle of a coastal motorway, and a group of passersby helped the driver push it along.

The picture was similar in other parts of Tripoli and nearby towns. Supply networks for basic goods have been disrupted by weeks of fighting. A refugee exodus out of Libya also means that bakeries do not have the manpower to make enough bread.

Libya is an OPEC oil exporter and has its own refineries, but the sector has been severely disrupted by the conflict. A lot of its oil refining infrastructure has been damaged, and production of oil and oil products has dropped sharply.

State TV has been assuring people that fuel reserves are sufficient, but an energy official admitted to Reuters last week Libya needed to import more supplies to deal with the shortages.

Seeking to topple Gaddafi and buoyed by Western air strikes, rebel forces have been pushing fast toward western Libya in past days, retaking land abandoned by the retreating army.


Perched on the Mediterranean coast and home to up to two million people, Tripoli is Libya's most heavily fortified city, where dissent is not tolerated by Gaddafi's feared militiamen.

Yet, some of its inhabitants were visibly angry when approached by journalists on Sunday.

"Television says Britain and France want to take away our oil, but I am standing here, I can't buy any petrol for my car," said one man lining up to buy petrol. "Where is the oil? What oil are they talking about?"

Another man, Sufiyah, rubbing his bloodshot eyes after a sleepless night of waiting in a petrol station queue, added: "I've been waiting since 4 a.m. There is no petrol. I am so tired. And yes, I am angry. A lot of people are."

The turmoil has also disrupted food supplies in the desert nation which depends on imports to cover domestic food demand.

Standing in line for rationed bread in one neighborhood, Fatima, a woman in her 20s, said it was particularly difficult to buy cooking oil, sugar and other refined products.

"Before it was normal but now there are shortages. It started with the crisis a month ago, and it's getting worse," said Fatima. She said that in her view prices for key food items like rice and flour had gone up by at least a third.

She said she was only allowed to buy one bagful of bread for her family per visit. Shops in Tripoli appear to be well stocked but many are closed.

The price of bread itself has changed little, people said, with shortages caused mainly by the exodus of migrant workers.

"Before there was a lot of bread, now there isn't. We have no workers now, so it's difficult to make enough bread," said Adil Mohamed Ali, a young man working at the bakery.

Ali Salim, a young taxi driver, said he did not know what to expect but blamed foreign countries for all the trouble.

"I have waited for four hours already. I have to do this every day. I am a taxi driver," he said. "No one knows what's next. Tomorrow it can all change. It's all because of the foreign countries who are interfering."