BERLIN Muammar Gaddafi has armed criminals to crush a rebellion against his rule in Zlitan, one of only three towns separating the rebel-held city of Misrata from Tripoli, a rebel spokesman said Tuesday.
Giving a rare account of rebel activity from inside the small but strategically important coastal settlement, the spokesman, Mohammed, told Reuters that forces loyal to the Libyan leader were recruiting criminals whose task was to arrest anyone suspected of being a rebel and to intimidate residents.
"They filled it with drug dealers, criminals and other crooks," Mohammed said by telephone. "They gave them automatic weapons and hand grenades to oppress the residents of Zlitan. Besides arrests and intimidations, we hear accounts of rape."
The last such incident, he said, involved a 12-year-old boy who this week was beaten and raped by militiamen. The boy was then abandoned in the street, he added.
There was no way of independently verifying incidents cited by Mohamed, but residents elsewhere in Libya have reported the apparent recruitment of criminals and thugs by Gaddafi forces.
A local resident who declined to be named told Reuters on Tuesday that signs of anti-Gaddafi rebellion were also evident further west in the towns of Khoms and Garabulli.
If such acts spill over into open revolt, the three towns could act as stepping stones to allow the anti-Gaddafi uprising to spread from Misrata, the biggest rebel outpost in western Libya, to Gaddafi's stronghold in Tripoli.
The Libyan army appears to be preparing for such a threat by massing large numbers of troops and military equipment in and around Zlitan and Khoms, Mohammed said, citing witnesses.
He said the militiamen in Zlitan set up checkpoints before nightfall to intimidate car passengers and pedestrians who dared to venture outside at night. He said they arrested anyone they suspected of being a rebel supporter.
Unlike in the port city of Misrata, rebels in Zlitan, which lies some 170 km east of Tripoli, are denied a steady flow of weapons by sea from the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
But Gaddafi opponents were fighting back, Mohamed said, in hopes of emulating their successes in nearby Misrata, where rebels last month drove loyalist troops out of the city after weeks of fierce street battles and intensive shelling attacks.
While Zlitan may be under government control during the day, Gaddafi opponents daub graffiti on walls, hoist the rebel flag and exchange fire with loyalists after dark.
He said: "Over the last few days, revolutionaries waged several attacks against pro-Gaddafi militiamen."
(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe in Algiers; Writing by Joseph Nasr, Editing by William Maclean and Maria Golovnina)