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As rebels regain the road to Tripoli, residents regroup

Mahdi Al-Hmali, 45, stands in the charred remains of his parent's house. He says pro-Gadhafi forces gave his relatives five minutes to evacuate their homes and then started looting, burning, and shooting up the compound on Wednesday afternoon. Many residents of Ajdabiya have similar stories, as the city recovers from occupation by pro-Gadhafi forces.

Graeme Smith/ The Globe and Mail)

Somewhere among the charred pieces of Libyan tanks, amid the crippled rocket launchers and broken vehicles in the wake of the rebels' rapid sweep toward Tripoli in recent days, a son recognized his father's car.

Fragments of the old Peugeot lay scattered near the road. So little remained of Adam Mufta al-Tarhuni's brother and father that he did not bother with a formal burial. Like most other residents of coastal towns now emerging from days of brutal occupation by the forces of Moammar Gadhafi, the 40-year-old blames the dictator for his misery.

"Gadhafi forces shot them with an RPG," he said. "They were not armed."

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When informed that a rocket-propelled grenade could not have inflicted such damage on his father's vehicle, Mr. al-Tarhuni threw up his hands: "Maybe it was a tank."

Rebels seized more than 200 kilometres of the strategic road to Tripoli over the weekend, advancing behind air strikes by foreign jets, leaving several hundred thousand people - from Ajdabiya, Brega, Agheila, Ras Lanuf, and smaller towns - straggling home and trying to make sense of what happened.

Their telephones don't work, and their friends have scattered after fleeing Col. Gadhafi's attacks, so they're inclined to believe the most incredible rumours about the tense weeks when the regime crushed the rebellion in their towns.

They speak of bodies scraped off the roads with bulldozers, of women and girls kidnapped by the dozen. None of them claim to have seen these horrors personally, however, and some initial estimates suggest the number of civilians killed in the freshly liberated areas could be lower than earlier feared.

The biggest town now enjoying its first days of freedom, Ajdabiya, has about 80 fresh graves in the main graveyard. Residents say other bodies remain under the rubble of collapsed homes, and they say that Col. Gadhafi's forces may have removed other corpses. But a rebel spokesman's description of a "house of horrors" awaiting the liberators has not yet materialized.

In many cases, such as the mysterious explosion that killed Mr. al-Tarhuni's father and brother, it's also difficult to confirm whether pro-Gadhafi forces were responsible for the deaths, and, if so, whether they fired at armed men or civilians.

On the top floor of an apartment in Ajdabiya, residents pointed to the smashed concrete walls of a child's bedroom, ravaged by rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-gun fire. They said a one-year-old boy, Sami, died there on Friday when pro-Gadhafi forces shot wildly at their neighbourhood to cover their retreat as rebels chased them out of the city.

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But the men in the neighbourhood also boasted of killing pro-Gadhafi soldiers with homemade explosives. On a landing in the stairwell leading to the child's bedroom, residents kept a small arsenal of Pepsi bottles filled with gasoline and primed with foam wicks. A neighbour of the dead child, Idris al-Faytouri, 29, a former policeman, showed off a more effective cocktail of powdered explosives that he packed into water bottles. He managed to throw six of those improvised bombs at groups of pro-Gadhafi soldiers, he said, with deadly results.

Other stories are less ambiguous. Mohammed Bleblu, a shop owner, said that pro-Gadhafi forces grabbed his 21-year-old friend at a checkpoint one evening and shot him in the head.

"They wanted him to declare his loyalty to Gadhafi, and he refused," Mr. Bleblu said.

When genuine loyalty was unavailable, the regime seemed willing to fake it. Muftar Taha, 41, said the government troops rounded up everybody who remained in his village of Besher, about 20 kilometres west of Brega, and forced them to wave the green flag of the regime for the benefit of a crew from Libyan national television.

No matter the precise scale of the violence or humiliations inflicted on these residents, they appear to be recovering with remarkable energy.

Supply convoys roared down the highway from rebel cities, waving the colours of the rebellion. They unloaded at supermarkets in Ajdabiya, where people thronged to pick up fresh bread and other essentials they lacked during the bitter days under siege. Elderly men struggled down the street with cans full of gasoline, which recently became available at the city's outskirts.

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A front-end loader scooped up piles of garbage that had accumulated on the cubs, some of the bags still smouldering from the fires. The contents of a water tower cascaded down from a ragged hole, but other infrastructure was under repair as a cherry-picker hoisted a crew working on electrical wires. Some electricity has been restored.

Mahdi al-Hmali, 45, stood in the charred remains of his parents' house, looted and burned by pro-Gadhafi forces, and said the experience of occupation has hardened any remaining soft spots that some residents may have harboured for the regime.

"Now," he said, "everybody is against them."

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