GAZAHIYA, Libya (AP) — A 22-year-old university student balanced an unloaded grenade launcher on his shoulder, grunted loudly in place of an explosion as he pulled the trigger, then handed the weapon to the next man.
The military drill on the lawn of a clinic in a remote village in government-controlled western Libya was part of what Moammar Gadhafi’s regime has tried to portray as a large-scale arming and training of the home front. Foreign reporters on a government tour were also taken to a school where a couple of teenage boys fired Kalashnikov rifles in the air.
The scenes appeared to have been hastily arranged. Men at a desert shooting range — barrels set up as targets on a rocky plain — said they had been bused to the site for the first time that day. A few dozen middle school boys were participating in a military rally in their school yard and some said they had received their fatigues just a day earlier.
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said last week that hundreds of thousands of rifles were being distributed to civilians to defend the home front, a claim that is impossible to verify because of tight restrictions on journalists in western Libya. About a dozen Libyans interviewed in three different areas recently said they had been handed Kalashnikovs from municipal weapons depots.
The reports that the government was arming supporters to suppress anti-regime demonstrations in the capital Tripoli first emerged at the start of the uprising against Gadhafi in mid-February. The government claims it is arming people to defend against foreign ground troops — even though there are none in western Libya — rather than to fight fellow Libyans.
However, the attempt to show civilians training with weapons could be a sign that Gadhafi loyalists are growing more nervous about their grip on western Libya. There has been persistent fighting in two major pockets of rebel resistance in that part of the country, including the coastal city of Misrata where rebels have held out during a two-month onslaught.
Those training Wednesday in the Tarhouna district, 70 kilometers (45 miles) southeast of the capital of Tripoli, seemed unsure of who their enemy was. Some struggled with whether they would shoot at fellow Libyans who have risen up against Gadhafi and now control the east of the country.
Volunteers said they had been told they must defend their homes against NATO ground troops, but would not be asked to go to the front. Some dismissed the rebels as al-Qaida-led ex-convicts or foreigners, repeating government propaganda that has tried to paint the rebels as Islamic extremists.
High school student Sanna Kanouni, 16, said she was learning how to handle a rifle to repel the “barbarian, colonial crusader aggression.” Asked what she knew about the rebels in the east, she said they are drug-taking foreigners, not Libyans — mimicking a line also put out by the government.
In her crammed classroom a lesson in taking apart a Kalashnikov was under way. Kanouni briefly fumbled with the weapons parts, gave up and pumped her fist to the pro-Gadhafi chants of her classmates.
Outside the high school, students posed with Kalashnikovs, some of them firing in the air.
High school students in Libya have traditionally received some weapons training, students and teachers at the school said, though they disagreed on the starting age of military training and on what exactly was involved.
At an elementary and middle school in the nearby village of Sagya, two dozen boys who appeared to be around 11 or 12 years old and were dressed in military fatigues participated in a pro-Gadhafi rally on the school grounds.
They briefly marched and stood at attention. Their principal, Abdel Razek Mahmoudi, said the boys had started marching drills two weeks ago, but were not touching guns.
However, 11-year-old Abdullah Rajab Iyad, said he’d been allowed to handle a gun earlier that day. The principal, overhearing the conversation, abruptly led the boy away.
Men in their 20s fired wildly into the air in the school yard, from amid the children. The program ended with a competition among about 20 men to see who was fastest at taking apart a Kalashnikov and putting it back together again.
Abdel Monem al-Muftah, who oversees the training of civilians in Tarhouna, said about 200 people each have been trained at 15 sites, ranging in age from 18 to 70.
On the clinic grounds in Gazahiya, several dozen men sat in circles, each group learning about a different weapon. The training seemed basic at best.
Mohammed Jumma, a 22-year-old computer science student, was handed a rocket-propelled grenade launcher without ammunition. The instructor told him to make sure no one was behind him before he fired — the weapon sends out a powerful backblast. He then corrected Jumma’s stance, left foot forward if the launcher is on the right shoulder.
Jumma pulled the trigger. The anticlimactic click that followed was not deemed satisfying, and he was asked to fire again, this time with a loud yell, before the launcher was handed to the next in line.
Moammar al-Ghrara, a 37-year-old Arabic teacher, said he would command a group of 40 men if the time came to defend the neighborhood. Al-Ghrara refused to entertain the thought that the rebels were ordinary Libyans.
When pressed, he said he would shoot at anyone, including Libyans, if they attacked his area.
The heavy weapons were displayed at the desert shooting range. Four men in fatigues crouching on the ground fired heavy machine guns toward barrels. Others fired off grenade launchers and an anti-aircraft gun, to the chants of “Allahu Akbar.”
Omar Musbah Omar, 23, said he has been training off and on for the past month, and that he and each of his four brothers had been given Kalashnikovs to keep at home. He said he would never raise a weapon against a fellow Libyan.
But, he said: “We’re ready for NATO.”