Tripoli braced for new clashes

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Protesters in the Libyan capital Tripoli face a new crackdown by pro-Gaddafi forces (AP)

Fighters loyal to Muammar Gaddafi have set up checkpoints in Tripoli ahead of planned anti-government protests, raising fears of new bloodshed in the Libyan capital.

A heavy crackdown during the past week has spread fear among residents.

The opposition has called for protesters to march out of mosques after Friday prayers and join demonstrations demanding Gaddafi’s removal.

Similar protests last Friday were met by brutal retaliation: Pro-regime militiamen opened fire immediately on the marches, killing and wounding a number of protesters.

Internet services, which have been patchy throughout Libya’s upheaval, appeared to be halted completely in Tripoli as well as in Benghazi – the opposition’s stronghold in the east.

Control of the capital is crucial to the Libyan leader, since it remains his strongest remaining bastion amid the uprising that began on February 15.

Even some cities in the west near Tripoli have fallen to the uprising, and the opposition has repelled repeated attacks by pro-Gaddafi forces trying to take back lost ground.

A large force from a brigade led by one of Gaddafi’s sons is leading a new attack on Zawiya, the closest opposition-held city to Tripoli, a resident said.

The troops from the Khamis Brigade – named after the son – attacked Zawiya’s western side, fired mortars and were using heavy machine guns and automatic weapons in clashes with armed residents and allied army units.

Friday could be a significant test of whether the opposition can maintain protests in Tripoli in the face of a fearsome clampdown. Several hours before prayers, streets were eerily empty, with few residents out. Security forces, however, were taking up key positions across Tripoli.

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