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Libya: Trouble in Tripoli

3 minute read
William E. Smith

Gaddafi survives an attack

Little of the sprawling army complex of Bab al Azaziyeh, in the heart of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, is visible over the high stone-and-concrete wall that encircles it. Red-bereted guards are on duty at the gates, remote-control TV cameras scan the street outside, and the occasional gun of a Soviet tank protrudes through slits in the wall. But Libyans know that their leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, uses the barracks as a residence, though for security reasons he often sleeps elsewhere. Thus when gunfire was heard in the vicinity of Bab al Azaziyeh, many Libyans thought they knew instantly what this meant: an attempt on Gaddafi’s life.

But the nature of that four-hour battle remained unclear last week, as conflicting versions emerged from anti-Gaddafi exiles, the Libyan regime and other sources in Tripoli. What was certain was that Gaddafi was alive and well, and in the capital. Even so, the incident was the most audacious challenge to Gaddafi’s control in the 15 years since he overthrew the aging King Idris. The shooting lasted from early morning until midday, ending in the death of seven attackers. Three others were arrested and at least another three escaped. Within 48 hours, Libyan authorities had used the incident as an excuse to round up 200 “enemies” of the regime, including government officials, military officers, university instructors and students.

Gaddafi, who rarely acknowledges opposition at home, blamed the attempt on the Muslim Brotherhood, a fanatical Islamic organization that is active in many Middle East countries. He admitted that the assailants could have “planned an attempt against me.” The plotters had been armed and trained, Gaddafi claimed, by his enemies: the U.S., Britain and Sudan. He described the British, who broke diplomatic relations with his government last month after a gunman in the Libyan embassy in London shot and killed a policewoman during an anti-Gaddafi demonstration, as “barbarous, troublemaking exporters of terrorism.” As for President Reagan, he is “the worst terrorist in the world.”

The Libyan government maintained that the firing had not taken place at Bab al Azaziyeh barracks but at a three-story building about half a mile from the barracks, where the plotters were hiding from police. The government also claimed that two days earlier three members of “opposition Islamic organizations” had entered the country from Tunisia. One was shot and killed; the others, according to this official version, were carrying the names of their coconspirators, presumably Libyan members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including those who were holed up in the Tripoli building.

In London, responsibility for last week’s assault was claimed by the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the organization that staged the anti-Gaddafi demonstration that led to the shooting of the British policewoman. The group is known to have links to the Muslim Brotherhood. One source in Beirut described the affair as a coup that went wrong when some of the plotters were arrested and a planned army uprising failed to materialize.

Since the London shooting, some Western governments have been making special efforts to monitor the activities of Libyan visitors. That prudence has paid at least one dividend. In a suburb of Philadelphia last week, two Libyans were arrested when they tried to buy two pistols equipped with silencers from undercover FBI agents.

— By William E. Smith. Reported by Reported by Roland Flamini/Tripoli

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