Rebel mosque demolished in restive Libyan city

By Maria Golovnina

ZAWIYAH, Libya (Reuters) – Government forces have razed a mosque formerly used by rebels as a command center in a western Libyan city, stepping up efforts to eradicate symbols of resistance against leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Rebel forces held Zawiyah for several weeks after an anti-Gaddafi uprising erupted in Libya in mid-February but were defeated on March 10 after a series of fierce battles.

The coastal town about 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli is now firmly under state control, with Gaddafi flags flapping in the sea breeze and streets patrolled by state militiamen. But the mosque’s demolition has distressed some locals.

“People are upset,” said Mohammad, a shop owner. “How can you remove a mosque in a central square just like that? It’s a Muslim country.”

The white stone building with a towering minaret — also used by rebels as a field hospital — was knocked down a week ago and bulldozed into a flat patch of sandy land.

A nearby makeshift graveyard in the central square where rebels buried their dead has also been flattened.

When Reuters correspondents visited Zawiyah on March 5, the cemetery contained about 20 graves. The mosque, a rallying point where rebel fighters came to pray, plan and rest, was also then intact, blaring anti-Gaddafi messages through a loudspeaker.

“The government demolished it because there was a lot of filth inside,” said Abulqassim Omar, a local resident.

The government took reporters to Zawiyah on Tuesday to show the city was under its control. A few dozen Gaddafi supporters waved flags and shouted slogans in the central square.

Official minders confirmed the mosque had been demolished by the government but there was no official comment.

The city is now a world apart. Under rebel control, ordinary civilians were openly anti-Gaddafi and opposition flags flew from many buildings. Rebels interviewed by Reuters said they wanted to oust Gaddafi and call free and fair elections.

Almost everyone interviewed on Tuesday echoed the official line, partly because government minders kept a close eye on contacts between local residents and visiting journalists.

One man, standing outside his shop, chose a moment when they were not looking to paint a darker picture of life in the city.

“Don’t you see how tightly controlled we are now. Government spies have us surrounded in this city and we are scared to talk,” he said. “Those were revolutionaries and civilians that they killed, they were not gangs or al-Qaeda.”

Describing scenes of fighting, he added: “The armed forces would use tanks and spray the buildings with the bullets without a clear target, they would spray the buildings. … But we can’t talk, all of Zawiyah is gone, either escaped or arrested.”

All around, ruined facades were decorated with Gaddafi portraits. With houses gutted and walls pockmarked with bullet holes, the city was subdued and most shops were boarded up.

Graffiti saying “Get out dictator” was still seen through the green paint used to cover it. Fences were plastered with statements from the Green Book — Gaddafi’s political manifesto.

Some were visibly upset. An old man stopped in the central square, shaking his head as he looked at a crowd of Gaddafi supporters dancing near a place where the mosque used to stand.

“It will never be the same,” he said. “Why are they so happy? I don’t know.”

(Editing by Louise Ireland)

Rebel mosque demolished in restive Libyan city