Tension beneath the calm in gateway town to Tripoli

GHARYAN, Libya Wed Jun 15, 2011 1:40pm EDT

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GHARYAN, Libya (Reuters) - Despite an outward appearance of normality there is an undercurrent of tension in this town, gateway to Tripoli from Libya's Western Mountains where rebels are advancing toward Muammar Gaddafi's capital.

On numerous walls around town on Wednesday graffiti had been recently painted over. The windows of one government building were smashed, the sign for another was riddled with holes.

Gharyan lies around 20 miles east of Kikla, which rebels battling forces loyal to Gaddafi seized on Tuesday. It could be the next target if the rebels are able to sustain their eastwards advance.

While many traders and people on the streets in Gharyan were reluctant to talk to reporters, one shop owner said the calm in the area during the day was replaced by fighting every night.

"Two thirds of the people here are for the rebels," he told Reuters, giving his name as Mohammed.

Libyan government minders brought a group of reporters here on Wednesday to demonstrate that despite fighting to the west, Gharyan has been unaffected and that people were going about their lives as usual.

The few who were willing speak to reporters in front of the minders were strongly pro-Gaddafi.

"We are behind our leader and we will fight to the death for this country," said Mustapha, who said he was a university lecturer. "Why did NATO come here to bomb us when we did nothing wrong?"

Just over 50 miles south of Tripoli, Gharyan is the largest town in the Western Mountains and straddles the highway to the Libyan capital.

The road north from here winds down from the mountains past rocky slopes covered in scant vegetation to the flat plain below that leads all the way to Tripoli.

The shops were open here on Wednesday, but there were also a noticeable number of uniformed and plain-clothes police officers on the streets. When reporters approached residents, many would not say anything.

"No talk, no talk," said one shop owner, before disappearing from view without another word into the back of his shop.

Another man, who gave his name as Yunis and spoke in French, attacked French President Nicolas Sarkozy in particular.

"Sarkozy is stupid, he is fighting this war for petrol," he said. "This is colonialism all over again."

Well away from the government minders, the shop owner, Mohammed, said the majority of Gharyan's residents were looking forward to the arrival of rebel forces.

"We can't wait for the rebels to come here," he said.

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