March 22, 2011 / 1:09 PM / 9 years ago

Criticism of Gaddafi grows bolder in Libyan capital

* Several residents say they want to be rid of Gaddafi

* Willingness to speak is a marked change from usual pattern

* People still too fearful to give their names

By Michael Georgy and Maria Golovnina

TRIPOLI, March 22 (Reuters) - After days of Western air strikes, some people in the Libyan capital felt bold enough on Tuesday to drop their customary praise of leader Muammar Gaddafi for a few moments and say instead they want him gone.

Residents who spoke to Reuters reporters in Tripoli were still too wary to give their names, and switched back to extolling Gaddafi when officials came within earshot.

But their willingness to openly criticise the man who has led the country for four decades was a marked change from the normal pattern, when people have been too frightened of retribution to speak candidly to reporters in the street.

“Here, everyone is waiting. It’s not like before,” said one man, who steered a reporter away from a government minder towards a coffee shop in Tripoli’s medina, or old city, so he could speak freely.

“My children are afraid but I know it’s all changing. This is the end. The government has no control any more.”

Keeping public opinion on his side in Tripoli is vital to Gaddafi’s grip on power because the capital is his biggest remaining stronghold, after the next two biggest cities in Libya were taken over by rebels.


In the medina, the sound of pro-Gaddafi songs could be heard from nearby Green Square, where a handful of supporters was holding a rally. Their numbers were sharply down on the thousands who were gathering a few weeks ago.

Isa, a bespectacled businessman with family in Britain, praised Gaddafi when a minder was close, but when the official moved away he changed tack.

“This is the moment. It’s critical. The bombs are booming at night. But we are watching the sky and we see the world is trying to help,” he said.

A man working in a clothing shop did not want to give his name because he said it was too risky for him to be identified, but he did say: “We want Gaddafi to go.”

“We are happy that the West is attacking his forces but we don’t want them to get rid of him. We want to do it ourselves. Libyans should get rid of him.”

In another change from the usual reticence shown by people in Tripoli around foreign reporters, a man working in a jewelry shop gave his opinion without being asked.

“He (Gaddafi) should have handled it differently. He opened fire on those protesters. They had a legitimate cause. We want changes in this country now.”

Gaddafi and his officials say the rebels are al Qaeda militants who are trying to destroy the country.

“Don’t believe any of this,” said the man in the jewelry shop. “It has nothing to do with al Qaeda.”

“These are protests against the system. We all know that Gaddafi is the problem,” he said. Moments later a minder walked into the shop and the shopkeeper fell silent. (Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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