Tripoli protest stamped out before it starts: report

TRIPOLI Fri Mar 11, 2011 10:05am EST

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan security forces used tear gas and fired in the air on Friday to disperse worshippers near a mosque in the capital before they could protest against Muammar Gaddafi, a Libyan man said, citing two witnesses.

It was impossible to verify reports about what was happening in the Tajoura district of Tripoli because foreign journalists were prevented from reporting from the area and local anti-Gaddafi activists were not answering phone calls.

There have been violent clashes after Friday prayers in previous weeks in Tajoura, making it the focus of opposition to Gaddafi's four-decade rule in a city which is otherwise tightly controlled by his supporters.

But this time the protest was stamped out before it had even begun, according to a Libyan from Tajoura, now living abroad, who said he had been in telephone contact with two residents.

"About 300 people were inside the mosque praying. Militia men fired tear gas and shot in the air to intimidate them," said the man, who did not want to be named because he feared reprisals against his family in Tripoli.

"There was a lot of tear gas. Everyone ran away. They tried to prevent the protests and succeeded," he told Reuters.

If the account is accurate, it shows Gaddafi has been able to consolidate his control in the capital and clamp down on dissent more firmly, in a further sign that the momentum in the conflict with rebels has shifted in his favor.

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A Tripoli resident who drove around the city soon after prayers were finished said there was no sign of trouble.

He told Reuters that in Tajoura's main square near the mosque, there were four or five police vans while a police helicopter flew over the area. The nearby Fashloom district, the scene of rioting last month, was also quiet.

He said there were a few hundred Gaddafi supporters holding a rally in the central Green Square.

Earlier on Friday, there were unconfirmed reports that people suspected of involvement in protests or speaking to the foreign media were being arrested to pre-empt any demonstration after Friday prayers, a frequent flashpoint for unrest.

Libyan officials have described the protesters in Tajoura as stone-throwing youngsters who do not have any legitimate political grievances.

Most foreign reporters based in Tripoli were prevented from reporting in Tajoura on Friday.

One reporter who left the hotel where a group of foreign journalists are staying was ordered out of his taxi by a police officer who said it was forbidden to travel anywhere without official supervision.

A group of foreign journalists who were able to reach the mosque in Tajoura before prayers was approached by several men in uniform, told they were not allowed to be there, and driven back to their hotel in buses.

A Libyan government official assigned to accompany foreign journalists said the presence of the media would incite violence.

"If journalists go there they (the protesters) will make trouble. They will shout and throw some rocks if they see journalists. There is no protest there today. There are just guys throwing rocks," said the official.

Friday is the main prayer time in Libya -- as elsewhere in the Muslim world -- when mosques attract hundreds of people to pray and hear sermons.

Libyan state television urged people in the rebel-controlled east of Libya not to attend Friday prayers in public places because of what it said was a threat to their safety.

It ran a headline saying it "warns the sons and people of the eastern region not to go to Friday prayers in public squares and open spaces for fear of their lives from mercenaries and criminal gangs.

(Writing by Christian Lowe; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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