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When Tabel Lamiri fled his home in Tripoli on Thursday morning after he had seen far too much bloodshed and received at least one death threat from police, the streets of the Libyan capital were eerily empty, cleansed of everyone but policemen and a few small and organized crowds of demonstrators holding and kissing portraits of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The 37-year-old café worker reached this desert border crossing after a perilous day-long trip that brought him through alternating rebel-held and regime-held towns - and dangerous stretches of road in between thronged with armed mercenaries.

Here, on the desert frontier between Tunisia and Libya, he joined a motley exodus of people, mainly male workers, who were fleeing by the thousands on Thursday, during a strange interlude largely without violence. Most expected their country to explode in Col. Gadhafi's final battle.

At the crossing, he melded into the crowd escaping into Tunisia - an estimated 6,000 Thursday and 20,000 so far this week - where they were welcomed by eager volunteers.

They wound up here, dragging their possessions in suitcases and plastic bags and bringing stories of violence and cruelty. They were Egyptian and Tunisian, Turk and Libyan, and their journey along the Libyan highway had taken them through the centre of a mounting conflict between a surging democracy movement and a collapsing, desperate regime.

They shared a desire to describe the horrors of last weekend, when Libyan troops opened fire on protesters and shot hundreds of people in the street point blank, and the new tension that seems to foretell the end of the Gadhafi family rule.

The Libyan capital, according to Mr. Lamiri and dozens of other citizens who opened their hearts on Thursday as they sprawled on the Tunisian pavement, has become Col. Gadhafi's final redoubt, swept and secured by African mercenaries, surrounded by a tightening circle of towns that have fallen to protesters and fast-defecting government and military officials who support them.

There has not been serious violence in the capital or its surroundings since Monday, numerous residents say. But nobody dares leave their house.

Earlier this week, rebels took full control of the eastern third of the county, adjoining the Egyptian border and dominated by the large city of Benghazi.

The people who made the westward journey said on Thursday that a string of large cities in the country's west, close to the Tunisian border - notably Misurata and Zuwarah - are now held by protesters. It appeared that pitched battles between African mercenaries and protesters armed with hunting rifles and swords had overtaken many of the cities.

"I passed bands of black African men carrying assault rifles, getting ready to go into the towns," said a European diplomat who drove into some of the cities along the route. "They were Gadhafi's mercenaries, but there was no fighting."

But a large group of Egyptians who fled Zuwarah, a prosperous seaside town, said that it had become the scene of pitched battles. "There was a big fight starting just as I left - knives and guns, but not much shooting," said Mohammed Ahmed Hassan, a labourer. "But the whole town is anti-Gadhafi, and I think the protesters will control it."

Mr. Lamiri described a capital city that has become a ghost town as residents believe Col. Gadhafi is about to make his final, bloody stand after being encircled by rebels (one of his senior cabinet ministers defected this week and told Al Jazeera that Col. Gadhafi should be likened to Adolf Hitler in his bunker).

Signs of last-minute desperation were increasingly apparent among the final remnants of the Gadhafi regime, as even more ministers, officers and diplomats defected (the ambassador to Jordan went over to the opposition Thursday night, joining Libya's missions to India, Washington and the United Nations).

On Thursday afternoon Col. Gadhafi delivered a speech - by telephone - to an audience of supporters in the opposition-held town of Zawiya, shortly before his mercenaries attacked it. Even by his standards, it was elliptical and often surreal: He declared, in a tone of voice that sounded more sedate than in Monday's maniacal Tripoli speech, that the nationwide protests were entirely the result of the drugging of Libya's youth by al-Qaeda, whose leader Osama bin Laden had slipped hallucinogenic chemicals into their Nescafé.

This, as Libyans all know, is hardly an exotic allegation by the standards of a leader known for such gestures as his Great Man-Made River, his proposed unified Middle Eastern state of Israstine, and his demand that the United Nations abolish Switzerland.

It was far less comical this time, as Libyan families stayed barricaded inside their homes out of a well-founded fear of deadly violence. The road to Tunisia is lined with small encampments of foreign mercenary soldiers, mostly non-Arabic fighters from sub-Saharan Africa, who have been paid a few thousand dollars to fight for Mr. Gadhafi. They, by some accounts, are virtually the only fighters the dictator has left, since much of the army and air force have defected or refused to follow orders to shoot fellow Libyans.

"At night we still hear gunfire and there are men with guns everywhere outside all day, but there is nothing happening here - the city is staying home because they will kill us if we go outside," said Gamal, a doctor in Tripoli reached by telephone on Thursday. Other Tripoli residents confirmed that the violence had abated midweek, but so had the protests.

A great many people are trying to get out before a final battle begins. Several men said they had been threatened with death by government agencies after contacting outsiders. Mr. Lamiri said he feared that he could be killed, and left his family behind.

On the way out of town, he saw a man who had just been shot in the leg, at point-blank range, with a terrible wound. It was the only violence he would witness - and most people who left the city yesterday said there had been no bloodshed. But there were threats.

He and many other men here all received a text message on their cellphones Thursday morning which read, "If you want to fight us, come fight us in Tripoli. We're waiting."

Police seized the cellphones of most people travelling out, removed the memory cards - evidently to remove any photos or evidence of violence - and demanded bribes of $20. Taxis cost twice as much as usual.

Those who made it out entered a neighbouring Arab state that has already experienced its own revolution. Hundreds of volunteers descended on the border crossing to help the Libyan refugees; boy scouts offered water and sandwiches, and the government provided first aid, ambulance transportation and free care in public or private clinics.

"We had our revolution, and we want the Libyans to have theirs," said Haifa Zarded, 18, a local high-school student who joined the volunteers. "They just have to get rid of that evil man."