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Gunsmoke and mirrors in Tripoli

By Jim Maceda, NBC News correspondent

You have a lot of time to daydream when you’re stuck in a Tripoli hotel lobby with 130 other foreign journalists, all squeezed together, waiting for The Leader to pass through a revolving glass door. Eight hours after a red carpet was laid outside that door – and with still no sign of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi – I began to imagine that we had passed through to the very weird side of the Looking Glass, where things are never as they should be.

Here we were, shooting video of each other with our cell phone cameras – some even streaming the live pictures back to their network HQs. After midnight, the Leader did, finally, arrive, pumping his fists in the air – did he think we were supporters at one of his pep rallies? – as the press scrum tried to move with him. He darted into a curtained room surrounded by his bouncers – all male this time – where he took questions from French and Turkish TV reporters. An hour later – that’s nine hours since the news that The Leader was coming to the Rixos Hotel to make a statement – he left by a back door, unseen by any waiting journalists. We didn’t even merit a goodbye fist pump.


All this time, less than 30 miles away, hundreds of anti-Gadhafi rebels were holed up in the center of a town called Zawiya. Despite several days of withering attacks by tanks, artillery and airstrikes, dozens of casualties and dwindling supplies, these Libyans were determined to fight to the last man for their freedom. This was the Libyan Alamo. But instead of covering THAT, we’d been corralled into a kind of captive, red-carpet press gaggle.

We’d been invited by the Libyan government to take our crews and "go wherever we want, shoot whatever we want." In doing so, said our Libyan handlers, we would quickly see through the lies of the "foreign media" (which means Al Jazeera and Al Arabiyya TV). We would soon understand that there is no pro-democracy movement or protest in Libya, no power struggle and no internal problems – just a series of "destabilizing incidents" carried out by al-Qaida operatives and organized by Israel.

What we came to understand, however, was that "wherever we wanted" to go meant only within the locked-down capital of Tripoli, well within a bubble of disinformation, and always with a government minder. So, on a Friday, after prayers, when we asked to be taken to Green Square or Algeria Square with a mosque where we might see "Day of Rage" protests, we were taken instead in a large bus along the coastal road, heading east and AWAY from any potential protests. "Why are you taking us out of town?" one of our Arabic speakers asked the chief minder. "Well, because we thought you’d like to go on a tour of the city when there’s no traffic!" he replied.

Organized bus trips – we call them Magical Mystery Tours - didn’t survive beyond the first week. And here’s why – word was out that pro-Gadhafi forces had retaken Zawiya. So we headed out, one Saturday, in a caravan of mini-vans and SUVs, passing checkpoint after checkpoint, until we got to the last checkpoint, about a mile outside Zawiya, where our minders said, "You’re on your own from here – don’t move quickly, or they’ll shoot you. But they know you’re coming’. We advanced slowly, wondering why pro-Gadhafi forces would shoot the people who had come to film the retaking of the town. What we soon found were several thousand people packed in Zawiyah’s central square, calling for the end of the Gadhafi regime, protected by soldiers sitting on tanks – who had just defected to the rebel side. What we ran into was the fall of Zawiya … to the opposition. Since that embarrassment (for the Gadhafi regime), each day since has begun with a proposed trip to Zawiya – based on some source that forces loyal to the regime had retaken it. We stand outside the revolving – or looking – glass door, next to the vehicles, and wait for our security clearance. It never comes.

While much of Libya remains under rebel control, the uprising is now in a stranglehold as loyalists of Moammar Gadhafi have launched a military attack, pushing back a drive to take Tripoli. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Today was no different. With the sun already setting, we were all summoned to depart…for Zawiya. Some of us asked why go so late, and take the risk of negotiating heavily armed checkpoints in the dark. "Zawiyah has been liberated! Our people are victorious!" was the reply. Sure enough, on the Libyan State TV channel playing out continuously on a large flat screen in the lobby, people were dancing and chanting pro-Gadhafi slogans in a pleasant, green park. The scrawl across the images said this was a "March of Coherence" with the people of Libya, taking place in Zawiya. But our sources were saying that half of the city of 300,000 had been destroyed by airstrikes, and what was left was a war zone.

We’d never get to see the "March of Coherence" with our own eyes. Just as our long caravan was about to pull out of the hotel parking lot, the trip was canceled. Yes, Zawiya was free, but the minister of oil was heading to our hotel, to explain who actually blew up a pipeline and storage tank on the eastern front, earlier in the day. Zawiya would have to wait. So we collected our bags, cameras and flak jackets, passed through the revolving glass door and returned to our weird world where nothing is quite right. Late tonight we learned that Martyr’s Square, in the center of Zawiya, was back in rebel hands.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent, based in London, currently on assignment in Libya.