MUAMMAR Gaddafi’s air defences were being protected today by crowds of civilians who, through a mixture of fervour and fear, have become human shields in Libya’s war.

“Thousands” of men and women showing support for their leader were at airports, military facilities and other sites across the country, according to a government spokesman in Tripoli.

A source in another major city, however, claimed that some were being held at air bases against their own will. Allied air and missile strikes continued to hammer Libya’s military resources today. A loud explosion was heard in the capital, followed by the ominous sound of anti-aircraft fire sending tracer shells into the darkness.

The Times and other foreign media effectively became temporary human shields on Sunday night when we agreed to be bussed in by officials to Colonel Gaddafi’s main compound in Tripoli to visit the site of an allied missile attack.

The presence of journalists and other civilians so close to the target area prompted the Ministry of Defence to order its Tornado fighter-bombers to abort a mission to hit the compound again.

“This decision underlines the UK’s commitment to the protection of civilians,” said Major General John Lorimer, a Ministry of Defence spokesman.  Britain, France and the US are under mounting pressure to maintain world support for the offensive, which has already drawn expressions of concern from the Arab League.

Yesterday Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, compared the UN-backed campaign to “medieval crusades”.  Mussa Ibrahim, the Libyan Government spokesman, said today that allied assaults on ports and a civil airport had killed many people.  The claims were impossible to verify independently, but Dr Ibrahim said he would provide the names and identities of the dead.

Infuriated by the foreign onslaught, voluntary human shields chanted in a defiant show of solidarity inside Colonel Gaddafi’s compound, barely 100m from an administrative building struck by a Tomahawk missile 24 hours earlier.

“We know that they want to remove Gaddafi, but we will die before they touch him,” said Ilham Majdani, 37, who spent several hours protesting on a field inside the fortified complex with her husband and three young children.

“There were other families still there when I left,” she said.  Her brother, Mohamed, 35, a dentist, said he volunteered to work as a translator for the foreign media when the government invited journalists to the capital last month.  However, disgusted at the air strikes, he no longer wants to offer his services and has instead spent the past three nights as a human shield.

“The time for words is over; this is war,” he told The Times, visibly agitated and upset.  There was no overt indication that the gathering was state-sponsored, with everyone declaring that they “suddenly” felt compelled to come.

The regime, however, opened up the walled-off area to the public after the UN Security Council passed its resolution last Thursday.  People are encouraged to enter at any time, day or night with the promise of food, drinks, lively pop music and dancing.  A sound system pumps out songs written over the past month, filled with pro-Gaddafi slogans, repeated again and again by the crowd.

People numbering in the hundreds whenever the media is present border on the hysterical in their declarations of love for Colonel Gaddafi, condemnation of the West and pledges to die for their cause.  A different picture is painted by an anti – Gaddafi doctor in Misrata, Libya’s third city, which has been in rebel hands since last month.

He said pro-Gaddafi forces kidnapped civilians, including his cousin and a friend, and were holding them at an air base.  He also said that troops had entered Misrata in tanks and were positioning themselves in a vegetable market and a stadium.  A second source claimed that loyalists were mingling with civilians to make them harder targets.

The Government denies such allegations, saying that all human shields are there of their own free will.  It was not possible to verify the news from Misrata because the regime has prevented the media from entering the city.

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