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Rebels exist but hiding in Gadhafi's capital

By Frederik Pleitgen and Kareem Khadder, CNN
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Rebels in Gadhafi's capital
  • Authorities in Libya try to portray Tripoli as a Gadhafi stronghold
  • Government minders shepherd western reporters to pro-Gadhafi demonstrations
  • Rebel supporters in the capital say many residents are against Gadhafi but scared of his retribution
  • They say they are too weak to start an all out uprising for the time being

Editor's note: CNN's Frederik Pleitgen has just returned to Germany from Tripoli where he often had to work with Libyan government minders watching -- but he was also able to evade their watchful eyes and exclusively meet in secret with anti-Gadhafi rebels.

Berlin, Germany (CNN) -- The Libyan regime is confining international journalists to a five star hotel in Tripoli called the Rixos.

When reporters want to leave they need to take a government minder and a government translator.

"This is important so that you do not get hurt," one official told CNN when we requested to drive around town on our own. He insisted angry Gadhafi supporters might harm journalists because of the rage caused by NATO's bombing campaign over Libya.

This policy tries to create a sentiment of fear among the reporters and instill in them the notion that Tripoli is a Gadhafi stronghold where any journalist who tries to move on his own and ask questions will be turned in and arrested, and possibly held for weeks like several western reporters who remain in custody in Libya.

The government minders like to take western reporters to raucous pro-Gadhafi demonstrations in Tripoli where loud protesters scream: "Down, down Sarkozy."

They vow to fight to the death for Moammar Gadhafi. The mood is threatening and the people taking part are pumped up and seem emotional.

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But we regularly managed to sneak out of the Rixos in recent weeks and discovered that the notion of Tripoli as a bastion of Gadhafi support is little more then a charade.

In one neighborhood we managed to contact the rebels. They brought us to a secret location where the refrain is: "We are the youth of 17th of February in Tripoli. We declare our total support to the free Libyan people. We also declare our full and total support to the Transitional National Council (the de facto rebel government) and believe only it and no one else is the legitimate representative of the Libyan people."

Those simple words can easily land young people in jail if they are caught shouting them in public and certainly if they are talking to international journalists.

So the young men wore masks. They were kind and well-educated and strongly denied the notion of a fanatical anti-Western public in Tripoli.

"Do not fear the Libyan people," a young rebel leader told us. "We want to be friends with the world. Gadhafi is just trying to scare you to think people will fight for him."

Some of the young men are even members of the Libyan security forces, and some say they were arrested in the early days of the uprising in Libya in late-February and tortured by pro-Gadhafi forces. "I did not know where the beating was coming from," one young man said. "I was deprived of sleep and even food and water."

The rebels say they believe that about 75 percent of Tripoli residents are against Gadhafi.

They also say that most are afraid to take to the streets and speak their minds because Gadhafi has put armed gangs into the neighborhoods and established checkpoints to suppress dissent.

It is impossible to verify these claims and, naturally, Libyan government officials strongly deny the assertions.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. There is no doubt that Gadhafi has supporters in Tripoli and around Western Libya.

People we have spoken to without government minders around say they have benefited economically from Gadhafi's rule, especially since 2004, when a lot of the international sanctions against Libya were lifted as Gadhafi attempted to align himself with the West.

There are many construction sites in Tripoli and Gadhafi's supporters speak highly of subsidized housing programs and other benefits.

"I think we also have one of the best health care systems in the world," one Gadhafi supporter told us. "I can just go to the hospital anytime and get care and we never have to pay a penny."

The young rebels, however, say to them it is not about money, or political power. They say they want freedom to speak their mind and take their country's destiny into their own hands.

"Gadhafi and his sons have only brought the Libyan people destruction and depression. They have squandered our natural resources and stolen money and killed their people in the past 42 years," the rebel leader told us, reading from a statement when we visited the group in their secret hideout.

They told us they are too weak to start an all out uprising for the time being.

They say they try to distribute pamphlets, spray anti-Gadhafi slogans on walls in town, organize smaller demonstrations and sometimes attack Gadhafi checkpoints.

After government forces opened fire on previous demonstrations the rebels say it is too dangerous to try anything more.

The opposition in Tripoli remains oppressed, but it is alive.

Another sign that people are not so fanatical about the "Brother Leader," comes every time we go out in downtown Tripoli without government minders present.

The mobs of would-be demonstrators vanish and people take very little notice of us, they are friendly and have never harassed us or even criticized NATO or the West.

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