TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — The West moved to send its first concrete aid to Libya's rebellion in the east of the country, hoping to give it the momentum to oust the Libyan leader. But the Libyan leader's regime clamped down in its stronghold in the capital, quashing an attempt Friday to hold new protests as residents reported skyrocketing food prices from the crisis.
The two sides in Libya's crisis appeared entrenched in their positions, and the direction the uprising takes next could depend on which can hold out longest. Gadhafi's opponents, including mutinous army units, hold nearly the entire eastern half of the country, much of the oil infrastructure and some cities in the West. Gadhafi is dug in in Tripoli and nearby cities, backed by security forces and militiamen who are generally better armed than the military.
In the two opposition-held cities closest to Tripoli — Zawiya and Misrata — rebel forces were locked into standoffs with Gadhafi loyalists.
In Zawiya, some 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, residents said they were anticipating a possible attack by pro-regime troops to try to retake the city. "Our people are waiting for them to come and, God willing, we will defeat them," said on resident who only wanted to be quoted by his first name, Alaa.
In Misrata, Libya's third largest city 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of Tripoli, skirmishes took place overnight between rebel forces controlling the city and troops loyal to Gadhafi, according to residents. Each side controls part of a sprawling air base on the outskirts of the city, and neither was able to make any gains in the latest sporadic fighting, they said.
Gadhafi opponents have moved to consolidate their hold in the east, centered on Benghazi — Libya's second largest city, where the uprising began. Politicians there on Sunday set up their first leadership council to manage day-to-day affairs, taking a step toward forming what could be an alternative to Gadhafi's regime.
The opposition is backed by numerous units of the military in the east that joined the uprising, and they hold several bases and Benghazi's airport. But so far, the units do not appear to have melded into a unified fighting force. Gadhafi long kept the military weak, fearing a challenge to his rule, so many units are plagued by shortages of supplies and ammunition.
In the capital, several hundred protesters started a march in the eastern district of Tajoura, which has been the scene of frequent clashes. After the burial of a person killed in gunfire last week, mourners began to march down a main street, chanting against the Libyan leader and waving the flag of Libya's pre-Gadhafi monarchy, which has become a symbol of the uprising, a witness said.
But they quickly dispersed once a brigade of pro-Gadhafi fighters rushed to the scene, scattering before the gunmen could fire a shot, the witness said. He and other residents in the capital spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
There were attempts to restore aspects of normalcy in the capital, residents said. Many stores downtown reopened, and traffic in the streets increased.
Tripoli was in turmoil on Friday, when residents said gunmen opened fire indiscriminately on protesters holding new marches. But since then, the capital has been quiet — especially since foreign journalists invited by Gadhafi's regime to view the situation arrived Friday.
Long lines formed outside banks in the capital by Libyans wanting to receive the equivalent of $400 per family that Gadhafi pledged in a bid to shore up public loyalty.
One resident said pro-Gadhafi security forces man checkpoints around the city of 2 million and prowl the city for any sign of unrest. She told The Associated Press that the price of rice, a main staple, has gone up 500 percent amid the crisis, reaching the equivalent of $40 for a five-kilogram (10-pound) bag.
Bakeries are limited to selling five loaves of bread per family, and most butcher shops are closed, she said.
Some schools reopened, but only for a half day and attendance was low. "My kids are too afraid to leave home and they even sleep next to me at night," said Sidiq al-Damjah, 41 and father of three. "I feel like I'm living a nightmare."
Gadhafi has launched by far the bloodiest crackdown in a wave of anti-government uprisings sweeping the Arab world, the most serious challenge to his four decades in power. The United States, Britain and the U.N. Security Council all slapped sanctions on Libya this weekend.
In Paris, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said Monday that France was sending two planes with humanitarian aid to Benghazi, the opposition stronghold in eastern Libya. The planes would leave "in a few hours" for Benghazi with doctors, nurses, medicines and medical equipment.
"It will be the beginning of a massive operation of humanitarian support for the populations of liberated territories," he said on RTL radio. He said Paris was studying "all solutions" — including military options — so that "Gadhafi understands that he should go, that he should leave power."
In Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was meeting Monday with foreign ministers from Britain, France, Germany and Italy, pressing for tough sanctions on the Libyan government. A day earlier, Clinton kept up pressure for Gadhafi to step down and "call off the mercenaries" and other troops that remain loyal to him.
"We've been reaching out to many different Libyans who are attempting to organize in the east and as the revolution moves westward there as well," Clinton said. "I think it's way too soon to tell how this is going to play out, but we're going to be ready and prepared to offer any kind of assistance that anyone wishes to have from the United States."
Two U.S. senators said Washington should recognize and arm a provisional government in rebel-held areas of eastern Libya and impose a no-fly zone over the area — enforced by U.S. warplanes — to stop attacks by the regime. But Fillon said a no-fly zone needed U.N. support "which is far from being obtained today."
AP correspondents Hamza Hendawi in Cairo, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
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