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

Sarkozy expressed enthusiasm for the plan, according to Mlegta and the senior NTC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The leaders slimmed the 120 targets down to 82 and "assigned 2,000 armed men to go into Tripoli and 6,000 unarmed to go out (onto the streets) in the uprising," according to rebel colonel Buhagiar. He joined the opposition National Front for the Salvation of Libya in 1981 and has lived in the United States and trained as a special forces operative in both Sudan and Iraq.

There were already anti-Gaddafi cells in the capital that the rebels knew they could activate. "The problem was that we needed time," the senior NTC official said. "We feared that some units may go out into the streets in a spontaneous way and they would be quashed. We also needed time to smuggle weapons, fighters and boats."

In the early months of the uprising, pro-rebel fighters had slipped out of Tripoli and made their way to the north-western city of Misrata, where they were trained for the uprising, rebels in Misrata told Reuters in June. The leaders of two rebel units said "hundreds" of Tripoli residents had begun slipping back into the city by mid-July. Commander Alhasi and other rebel officers in Benghazi said the number of infiltrators sent into Tripoli was dozens, not hundreds.

"This was not D-Day," Alhasi told Reuters in his office.


Most of the infiltrators traveled to Tripoli by fishing trawler, according to Alhasi. They were equipped with light weapons -- rifles and sub-machineguns -- hand grenades, demolition charges and radios.

"We could call them and they could call each other," Alhasi said. "Most of them were volunteers, from all parts of Libya, and Libyans from overseas. Everybody wants to do something for the success of the revolution."

Although Tripoli was ostensibly under the control of Gaddafi loyalists, rebels said the security system was porous: bribery or other ruses could be used to get in and out. Small groups of men also began probing the government's security system with nighttime attacks on checkpoints, according to one operative who talked to Reuters in June.

It was possible to smuggle weapons into Tripoli, but it was easier and less risky -- if far more expensive -- to buy them from Gaddafi loyalists looking to make a profit before the regime collapsed. The going rate for a Kalashnikov in Tripoli was $5,000 over the summer; in Misrata the same weapon cost $3,000.

Morale got a boost when rebels broke into government communication channels and recorded 2,000 calls between the regime's top leadership, including a few with Gaddafi's sons, on everything from military orders to sex. The NTC mined the taped calls for information and broadcast some of them on rebel TV, a move that frightened the regime, according to the senior NTC source. "They knew then that we had infiltrated and broken into their ranks."

Recordings of two of the calls were also handed to the International Criminal Court. One featured Gaddafi's prime minister al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi threatening to burn the family of Abdel Rahman Shalgham, a one-time Libyan ambassador to the United Nations and an early defector to the rebels. Al-Mahmoudi described Shalgham as a slave. The other was between al-Mahmoudi and Tayeb al-Safi, minister of economy and trade; the pair joked about how the Gaddafi brigades would rape the women of Zawiyah when they entered the town.

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