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Special report: The secret plan to take Tripoli

Sep 6, 2011, 6:50 a.m.
Libyan rebels celebrate at Bab Al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli August 23, 2011. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi

By Samia Nakhoul

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime was delivered by a caterer, on a memory stick.

Abdel Majid Mlegta ran the companies that supplied meals to Libyan government departments including the interior ministry. The job was "easy," he told Reuters last week. "I built good relations with officers. I wanted to serve my country."

But in the first few weeks of the uprising, he secretly began to work for the rebels. He recruited sympathizers at the nerve center of the Gaddafi government, pinpointed its weak links and its command-and-control strength in Tripoli, and passed that information onto the rebel leadership on a series of flash memory cards.

The first was handed to him, he says, by Gaddafi military intelligence and security officers. It contained information about seven key operations rooms in the capital, including internal security, the Gaddafi revolutionary committees, the popular guards -- as Gaddafi's voluntary armed militia was known -- and military intelligence.

The data included names of the commanders of those units, how many people worked in each center and how they worked, as well as crucial details like the number plates of their cars, and how each unit communicated with the central command led by intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi and Gaddafi's second son Saif al-Islam.

That memory card -- which Mlegta later handed to officials at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) -- provided the basis of a sophisticated plan to topple the Libyan dictator and seize Tripoli. The operation, which took months of planning, involved secretly arming rebel units inside the capital. Those units would help NATO destroy strategic targets in the city -- operation rooms, safe houses, military barracks, police stations, armored cars, radars and telephone centers. At an agreed time, the units would then rise up as rebels attacked from all sides.

The rebels called the plan Operation Dawn Mermaid. This is the inside story -- much of it never before told -- of how that plan unfolded.

The rebels were not alone. British operatives infiltrated Tripoli and planted radio equipment to help target air strikes and avoid killing civilians, according to U.S. and allied sources. The French supplied training and transport for new weapons. Washington helped at a critical late point by adding two extra Predator drones to the skies over Tripoli, improving NATO's ability to strike. Also vital, say western and rebel officials, was the covert support of Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Doha gave weapons, military training and money to the rebels.

By the time the rebels were ready for the final assault, they were so confident of success that they openly named the date and time of the attack: Saturday, August 20, at 8 p.m., just after most people in Tripoli broke their Ramadan fast.

"We didn't make it a secret," said Mohammed Gula, who led a pro-rebel political cell in central Tripoli and spoke to Reuters as rebels first entered Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziyah compound. "We said it out on the street. People didn't believe us. They believe us now."

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