TRIPOLI, Feb. 28, 2011— -- I've just returned from the center of Tripoli, Libya, after a drive around town. Like all journalists here, my team and I were driven and accompanied by government employees, but they did take us precisely where I asked to go.
What we found was normal traffic in the streets, people walking, or at cafes and restaurants. At just about every bank we saw, there were long lines of men and women waiting for the cash handouts that Col. Moammar Gadhafi had just announced.
The leader was giving each family 500 dinars, the equivalent of about $450. For most people here, that covers salary for a month or two.
As we walked up with our cameras to talk to them, many burst into pro-Gadhafi chants once they realized we were visiting journalists. They were friendly, although some complained to the government minder with us that they had been waiting in line for hours and still had not received their handouts. There were also lines at local bakeries.
We went to Green Square, the site of Gadhafi's most recent speech atop the ramparts of the old city. That's when he accused anti-government protestors of having taken hallucinogenic pills.
One woman we talked to at the Square today repeated that charge, and said she had been educated in America. She told us that Libyans are happy with Gadhafi as their leader, and that their country is a happy and peaceful one.
Another English-speaking man told us that while "the tension is still so thick you could cut it with a knife," things had died down since this time last week, when, he acknowledged, the sound of gunfire could be heard in Tripoli.
At the Tripoli central hospital, the city's main accident and emergency hospital, the head of the emergency unit told my colleague from the London Sunday Times that he had received nine bodies after Friday's anti-government protests in town.
He said all were gunshot victims, mostly to the chest. The Times talked to family members of the victims at the hospital, angry that protesters had been met by live fire.
No Evidence of Air Assault
But the central allegation against Gadhafi and his regime is that he ordered aerial bombardments and helicopter gunships against protesters. This has inflamed international anger and the United States and its allies have got a new U.N. resolution that imposes sanctions, a freeze on Gadhafi family assets, a travel ban, an arms embargo, and provision to refer possible war crimes to the International Criminal Court.
In our effort to hunt down evidence of bombings, evidence we also tried to find in Tripoli from the sky on a helicopter tour offered by the government here, which is desperate to prove to outsiders that allegations of aerial bombardment amounts to a "hostile media campaign."
From that vantage point, we could not see any evidence of damage from an air assault here in the capital, even as we flew over the areas where last week's protests started.
But when we got back to our hotel, we did hear some gunfire, and our colleagues from the BBC report another anti-Gadhafi demonstration there; in Tripoli's Tajoora neighborhood.