DARNAH, Libya – The popular uprising against Moammar Gadhafi expanded into an oil-rich area of western Libya long considered one of his strongholds, leaving the long-time leader increasingly isolated and in danger of encirclement as he fights for survival.
Calm was returning to a stretch of eastern Libya seized by the opposition. Residents were restoring basic services in the country’s second-largest city, Benghazi, and setting up informal governing structures.
“The uprising is over. Eastern Libya has all fallen from Gadhafi’s power,” said Ashraf Sadaga, who helps oversee a mosque in the coastal city of Darnah. At a rally there, one young man held a sign addressing Gadhafi: “The people have dug your grave,” it said.
But reports painted a grim picture of western Libya. Terrified residents of the capital, Tripoli, said pro-government militias rampaged through some residential areas, firing automatic weapons from pickup trucks and Land Cruisers.
The fall of Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city and located little more than 100 miles east of Tripoli, as well as a smaller town in the far west meant that the rebellion inspired by revolts in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt now spans nearly the length of the country.
Crowds fought loyalists in Sabratha, about 40 miles west of Tripoli. The opposition also claimed control of Zuwarah, about 30 miles from the Tunisian border in the west, after local army units sided with the protesters and police fled.
Gadhafi’s traditional backing from powerful tribal leaders also is starting to unravel, analysts said, marking a potential turning point. Key among them is the Warfallah tribe, one of Libya’s largest, which is based south of Tripoli. It announced it was joining the movement to oust him.
Residents of Tripoli said the government sent out cell phone text messages urging people to go back to work, insisting life was returning to normal. But protesters reportedly also used texts to urge police, members of the army and others to march on Friday.
“We don’t know who is in charge,” Najah Kablan, a teacher, said by telephone. “It is very frightening.”
Tripoli residents hunkered down to wait out the crisis, as well a heavy afternoon rainstorm. Many shops and offices were shuttered, and heavily armed troops patrolled instead of police.
Conditions were far calmer in eastern cities that already have fallen to the opposition, such as Darnah, a coastal community of 100,000 people long considered a citadel of conservative Islam and a hotbed of anti-Gadhafi sentiment.