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Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has lost control of many cities along the country's Mediterranean coast, but he's still clinging to power in the capital, Tripoli, and he's still holding at least one other city that he considers crucial - that would be Sirt. It's Gadhafi's hometown and it's about halfway between Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi, the main rebel stronghold.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sirt is the one city in Libya where rebel forces do not seem to be making any inroads.
Juma'a is a policeman in Sirt. We spoke to him by phone during a visit to his family in Benghazi. He says there are about 4,000 troops in Sirt now, loyal to Gadhafi, and in addition the regime has armed local tribesmen who will fight for him if necessary.
JUMA'A (Policeman): (Through translator) This town is very important to Gadhafi, because it's where he comes from. His tribe, his supporters, his relatives all are from there. The people of Sirt are afraid that if the regime falls, there will be reprisals against them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Juma'a says Sirt is not only symbolically important...
JUMA'A: (Through translator) It has a strategic position. It is a link between the East, the West and the South. All roads go through Sirt. And so strategically he has to keep control there if he wants to stay in power.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rebel commanders in Benghazi know that as well. One told NPR that he was calling on the people of Sirt to rise up against Gadhafi. Colonel Tarek Saad Hussien says his message is you are either with us or against us. And he adds that Sirt has become a major obstacle to the spread of the rebellion. Inside Sirt, pro-Gadhafi security forces are allegedly using brutal tactics to keep it in their hands.
Adel Idris says he recently escaped from a prison in Sirt, arriving in Benghazi and safety after nine days of what he calls a sojourn in hell. He spoke to NPR for several hours about his experiences, his hands shaking, switching between broken English and Arabic.
Mr. ADEL IDRIS (IT Engineer): I'm so tired and so sad, and I'm not normal, really.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He stops talking and stares into the distance. He does that a lot during his narrative. Idris was arrested nine days ago, just after the protests against Gadhafi began in the East. He says he's been an activist for many years, and he was well-known to the local branch of internal security. His body bears the scars of previous abuse at the hands of Gadhafi's men. He shows us cigarette burns and slash marks on his arm where he says he was cut during other incarcerations. After his most recent arrest, however, he was put to work. He's an engineer who works in IT, so he was forced to inspect the computer files of suspects held in detention by the tech-illiterate security guards. He continues in Arabic.
Mr. IDRIS: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Every day, he says, brought some new horror. They tortured a man's young nephew in front of him to extract a confession. He says the man had been discovered with anti-Gadhafi material on his computer. He says he tried to delete the worst of it before it was discovered, but it wasn't enough. Another day he witnessed the rape of several young men. He says there were also 25 women in the prison.
Mr. IDRIS: Every night I hear the woman scream but I don't know what's happening with the woman.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He imagines the worst.
Mr. IDRIS: What happened with the guys, with the man? How with the woman? I only hear the screaming.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As he talks, he plays with a ring on his finger. It's the engagement ring of his cellmate. He says the man was executed with a bullet to the head. Just before he was taken away, he handed the ring to Idris and asked him to return it to his family. In addition to the torture and the executions, Idris says the guards also used dogs to terrify the prisoners.
Mr. IDRIS: What he do with me there with his dogs, I don't give up - never to give up. I not cry. I not scream. Not. It's the first time I cry now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR has no way to corroborate his story. Others imprisoned during this uprising, though, who have spoken to NPR have also alleged they were tortured. Idris says he finally managed to escape with the help of a sympathetic guard. He says he doesn't know what happened to that man. Idris has tried to call and thank him now that he's in safety in Benghazi, but he hasn't been able to get through to Sirt.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Benghazi.
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