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Originally published March 3, 2011 at 3:31 AM | Page modified March 4, 2011 at 5:59 AM

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Gadhafi troops deploy ahead of Tripoli protests

Fighters loyal to Moammar Gadhafi set up checkpoints in Tripoli, searching cars, ahead of planned anti-government protests Friday, raising fears of new bloodshed in the Libyan capital where a heavy crackdown the past week has spread fear among residents.

Associated Press

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TRIPOLI, Libya —

Fighters loyal to Moammar Gadhafi set up checkpoints in Tripoli, searching cars, ahead of planned anti-government protests Friday, raising fears of new bloodshed in the Libyan capital where a heavy crackdown the past week has spread fear among residents.

The opposition has called for protesters to march out of mosques after noon prayers in demonstrations demanding Gadhafi's ouster. Similar protests last Friday were met by brutal retaliation: Pro-regime militiamen opened fire immediately on the marches, killing and wounding a still unknown number.

Internet services, which have been spotty throughout Libya's upheaval, appeared to be halted completely in Tripoli on Friday, as well as in Benghazi, the opposition's stronghold in the east. The extent of the cutoff was not clear.

Control of the capital is crucial to the Libyan leader, since it remains his strongest remaining bastion amid the uprising that began on Feb. 15 and has broken the entire eastern half of Libya out of his control. Even some cities in the west near Tripoli have fallen to the uprising, and the opposition has repelled repeated attacks by pro-Gadhafi forces trying to take back the territories.

A large force from a brigade led by one of Gadhafi's sons led a new attack Friday 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, firing mortars and then engaging in battles of heavy machine guns and automatic weapons with armed residents and allied army units, said the resident.

"Our men are fighting back the force, which is big," the resident said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Zawiya has beaten back several assaults the past week.

The crisis has turned into something of deadlock between the two sides. Gadhafi's forces have been unable to take back significant ground from the rebellion. At the same time, his opponents, made up of ragtag citizen militias backed by mutinous army units, don't seem to have the capabilities to make a military move against territory still in regime hands.

Instead, the eastern-based opposition is hoping that residents of those areas - including Tripoli - will be able to rise up like they did in other cities where protesters drove out Gadhafi loyalists.

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, began to take up positions.

In Tajoura, an eastern district of the capital where protests a week ago were attacked, police set up two checkpoints on the main highway leading to downtown. They stopped cars to search them, check drivers' ID and ask where they were going or coming from. Another police car was set up not far from the district's main Murad Agha Mosque.

Libyan authorities briefly barred many foreign journalists from leaving their hotel in Tripoli, claiming it was for their protection because they had information "al-Qaida elements" plan to open fire on police to spark clashes. They later allowed them to go out into Tripoli.

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Gadhafi loyalists in the capital have unleashed a wave of arrests and disappearances since last Friday's bloodshed. Bodies of people who vanished have been dumped in the street. Gunmen in SUVs have descended on homes in the night to drag away suspected protesters, identified by video footage of protests that militiamen have pored through to spot faces. Other militiamen have searched hospitals for wounded to take away.

Residents say they are under the watchful eyes of a variety of Gadhafi militias prowling the streets. They go under numerous names - Internal Security, the Central Support Force, the People's Force, the People's Guards and the Brigade of Mohammed al-Magarif, the head of Gadhafi's personal guard - and they are all searching for suspected protesters.

"While you are speaking to me now, there are spies everywhere and people watching me and you," one man said, cutting short a conversation with an Associated Press reporter visiting the Tripoli district of Zawiyat al-Dahman on Thursday.

The fear among Gadhafi opponents is so intense that when one family set up a mourning tent in Tripoli's Fashloum neighborhood on Thursday for a 56-year-old protester killed last Friday, no one showed up to pay condolences.

During the man's burial several days earlier, "the militia was also there watching us," said the man's brother. He - like other residents - asked that he and his relatives not be identified for fear they too would be hunted down.

He said his brother was shot when militiamen opened fire on protesters emerging from Fashloum's main Al-Baz mosque last week. "My brother was hit with a bullet right in the heart. In minutes he lost all his blood," he said, showing a mobile phone video clip of the body, with a hole in the chest.

While rushing to Tripoli's central hospital, he found militia stationed in front of the building.

"Doctors at the hospital told me that they are taking the injured to underground rooms inside the hospital away from the militia," said the brother, who is a doctor himself.

The number of deaths across Tripoli last Friday is not confirmed. The brother gave the names of six people from Fashloum who were killed. He said other bodies of slain protesters that day were seen being loaded into cars by militiamen and have not been seen since. He said he knows families who are still searching for bodies of their loved ones.

Others were arrested later on. The brother said he knows a 37-year-old man who disappeared for several days afterward. Then his body was dumped in a street in Tripoli's Abu Selim district.

In Tajoura, a 31-year old protester showed the AP on Thursday the houses of his two brothers, who were rounded up in a 3 a.m. raid a day earlier.

The protester said he was on the roof of a nearby building during the raid, counting the militia vehicles: 15 white pickup trucks with People's Guards license plates and two 4x4 Toyotas screeched up to the adjacent houses in a narrow, unpaved alley. They cordoned off the buildings, militiamen leaped over the buildings' fences, froze the door locks off with a compressed substance in cans and broke in. They drove off with his 32- and 35-year-old brothers, whose whereabouts remains unknown, the protester said.

They were among 20 protesters rounded up in Tajoura at that same time, according to various residents.

"They call Tajoura 'the terrorist neighborhood' because we dared to call for ousting Gadhafi," the protester said.

In the home of one of the arrested men, clothes were left scattered around the living room, drawers were open and the TV was still on. The door was intact, but its lock was knocked out. In the bedroom, the mattress was overturned. The protester said money, jewelry and four mobile phones were also taken. Other young men from the family had already been arrested days earlier, he said.

Except for the barking dogs, the house was empty and still.

"We moved their families away from here. There is no way they can stay after what happened," he said, adding that he and his fellow activists had also decided not to spend the night in their homes.

"This is the message to all Libyans: if you say you don't want Gadhafi, this is what will happen to you," he said.

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