Gaddafi regime imperiled as chaos engulfs Tripoli

ByOREN KESSLER, ASSOCIATED PRESS
February 21, 2011 22:43

Air force pilots, diplomats defect, gov't building burns; reports of fighter jets attacking protesters; security forces plan massive crackdown.




Men carry coffin at Al-Jalaa hospital in Benghazi

Men carry coffin Libya 311. (photo credit:ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Deep fissures emerged in Muammar Gaddafi’s autocratic regime on Monday, with Libyan government officials at home and abroad resigning, air force pilots defecting and a major government building ablaze after clashes in the capital, Tripoli.

Despite a heavy crackdown, protesters called for another night of defiance against the Arab world’s longest-serving leader.

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Gaddafi’s government appeared to be preparing a major assault in the capital on Monday night, in an attempt to crush unrest that had already swept the eastern parts of the country – leaving Benghazi, Libya’s secondlargest city, in protesters’ control – and was now overwhelming the capital, a city of two million people.


State TV announced that the military had “stormed the hideouts of saboteurs,” and called on the public to back the security forces as protesters called for a new demonstration in the central Green Square and in front of Gaddafi’s Tripoli residence.

Military warplanes swooped low over the city in the evening, and snipers took positions on the roofs of buildings around Tripoli, apparently to stop people from outside the capital from joining the march, according to Muhammad Abdul-Malek, a London-based opposition activist in touch with locals.

Tripoli residents gave conflicting reports on Monday, with some saying they could hear gunfire in the Libyan capital, and a political activist telling Al-Jazeera warplanes were bombing the city.

“We don’t know what is going on, all we can hear are occasional gunshots,” one man who lives near Green Square told Reuters.

“I just hear gunshots sometimes. I am at home guarding my family because the situation is unstable. No one knows what will happen,” another resident said.

But Adel Muhammad Saleh, who called himself a political activist in Tripoli, said the aerial bombing had initially targeted a funeral procession.

“What we are witnessing today is unimaginable. Warplanes and helicopters are indiscriminately bombing one area after another. There are many, many dead,” Saleh told Al-Jazeera television in a live broadcast.

Communications into the capital appeared to have been cut, and mobile phones could not be reached from outside the country. State TV showed hundreds of Gaddafi supporters rallying in Green Square on Monday evening, waving pictures of the Libyan leader and palm fronds.

The eruption of turmoil in the capital after six days of protests and bloody clashes in Libya’s eastern cities sharply escalates the challenge to Gaddafi. His security forces have unleashed the bloodiest crackdown of any Arab country against the wave of protests sweeping the region. At least 233 people have been killed so far, according to New Yorkbased Human Rights Watch.

The chaos in Libya, an OPEC country that is a significant oil supplier to Europe, was raising international alarm. Oil prices jumped $1.67 to nearly $88 a barrel on Monday amid investor concern. European nations were eying an evacuation of their citizens.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting neighboring Egypt, called the Libyan government’s crackdown “appalling.”

“The regime is using the most vicious forms of repression against people who want to see that country – which is one of the most closed and one of the most autocratic – make progress,” he told reporters in Cairo.

The heaviest fighting so far has been in the east. In Benghazi, security forces opened fire on Sunday on protesters storming police stations and government buildings. But in several instances, units of the military turned against them and sided with protesters.

By Monday, protesters had claimed control of the city, overrunning its main security headquarters, called the Katiba.

Celebrating protesters raised the flag of the country’s old monarchy, toppled in 1969 by a Gaddafi-led military coup, over Benghazi’s main courthouse and on tanks around the city.

“Gaddafi needs one more push and he is gone,” said Amal Roqaqie, a lawyer at the Benghazi court. Protesters are “imposing a new reality...Tripoli will be our capital. We are imposing a new order and new state, a civil constitutional and with transitional government.”

Gaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam went on state TV in the early hours on Monday with a sometimes confused speech of nearly 40 minutes, vowing to fight and warning that if protests continue, a civil war will erupt in which Libya’s oil wealth “will be burned.”

“Muammar Gaddafi, our leader, is leading the battle in Tripoli, and we are with him,” he said. “The armed forces are with him. Tens of thousands are heading here to be with him. We will fight until the last man, the last woman, the last bullet,” he said.

Seif al-Islam also promised “historic” reforms in Libya if protests stop, saying on state TV that he had formed a commission to investigate deaths during the unrest. Protesters ignored the vague gestures.

Even as he spoke, the first clashes between protesters and security forces in the heart of Tripoli were still raging, lasting until dawn.

During the day on Monday, a fire raged at the People’s Hall, the main center for government gatherings where the country’s equivalent of a parliament holds its sessions several times a year, the pro-government news Qureyna website said.

It also reported the first major sign of discontent in Gaddafi’s government, saying justice minister Mustafa Abdel- Jalil resigned from his post to protest the “excessive use of force against unarmed protesters.”

Libya’s UN ambassadors called for Gaddafi to step down, and there were reports of a string of ambassadors abroad defecting. Libya’s former ambassador to the Arab League in Cairo, Abdel-Moneim al-Houni, who a day earlier resigned from his post to side with protesters, issued a statement demanding that Gaddafi and his commanders and aides be put on trial for “the mass killings in Libya.

“Gaddafi’s regime is now in the trash of history because he betrayed his nation and his people,” Houni said.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa expressed deep concern on Monday over the situation in Libya, Reuters reported, urging an immediate halt to violence and calling for talks instead of confrontation.

“We are faced with new circumstances in the region, and these circumstances demand dialogue and not confrontation,” he said. “We are deeply concerned about the current circumstances in Libya, and we are following the events with deep worry.”

A Libyan diplomat in China, Hussein el-Sadek el-Mesrati, told Al-Jazeera, “I resigned from representing the government of Mussolini and Hitler.”

Two Mirage warplanes from the Libyan Air Force fled a Tripoli air base and landed on the nearby island nation of Malta, and their pilots – two colonels – asked for political asylum, Maltese military officials said.

Tripoli was largely shut down on Monday, with schools, government offices and most stores closed, except for a few bakeries serving people hunkered in their homes, residents said. Outside, armed members of pro-government organizations called “Revolutionary Committees” circulated in the streets hunting for protesters in Tripoli’s Old City, said one protester, named Fathi.

Protesters planned new marches on Monday evening in Green Square and at the leader’s residence.

A similar march the night before sparked scenes of mayhem in the long heavily secured capital.

On Sunday evening, protesters from across the city streamed into Green Square, all but taking over the plaza and surrounding streets in the area between Tripoli’s Ottoman-era Old City and its Italian-style downtown. That was when the backlash began, with snipers firing down from rooftops and militiamen attacking the crowds, shooting and chasing people down side streets.

Gaddafi supporters in pickup trucks and cars raced through the square, shooting automatic weapons. “They were driving like mad men searching for someone to kill... It was total chaos, shooting and shouting,” one 28-year-old protester said.

The witnesses reported seeing casualties, but the number could not be confirmed. One witness, named Fathi, said he saw at least two he believed were dead and many more wounded. After midnight, protesters took over the main Tripoli offices of two state-run satellite stations, Al- Jamahiriya-1 and Al-Shebabiya, one witness said.

Fragmentation is a real danger in Libya, a country of deep tribal divisions and a historic rivalry between Tripoli and Benghazi. The system of rule created by Gaddafi – the “Jamahiriya,” or “rule by masses” – is highly decentralized, run by “popular committees” in a complicated hierarchy that means there is no real center of decision-making except Gaddafi, his sons and their top aides.

Seif al-Islam Gaddafi has often been put forward as the regime’s face of reform and is often cited as a likely successor to his father. His younger brother Mutassim is the national security adviser, with a strong role in the military and security forces, and another brother, Khamis, heads the army’s 32nd Brigade, which according to US diplomats is the best trained and best equipped force in the military.

The revolt in Benghazi and other cities in the east illustrated the possibility of the country crumbling.

In Benghazi, cars honked their horns in celebration and protesters in the streets chanted “Long live Libya” on Monday after bloody clashes on Sunday that killed at least 60 people as security forces defending besieged stations opened fire with heavy caliber machine guns and anti-aircraft guns.

Benghazi’s airport was closed, according to an airport official in Cairo. A Turkish Airlines flight trying to land in Benghazi to evacuate Turkish citizens on Monday was turned away, told by ground control to circle over the airport then to return to Istanbul.

There were fears of chaos as young men – including regime supporters – seized weapons from the Katiba and other captured security buildings. “The youths now have arms and that’s worrying,” said Iman, a doctor at the main hospital.

“We are appealing to the wise men of every neighborhood to rein in the youths.”

Youth volunteers were directing traffic and guarding homes and public facilities, said Najla, a lawyer and university lecturer in Benghazi. She and other locals said police had disappeared from the streets.

After seizing the Katiba, protesters found the bodies of 13 uniformed security officers inside who had been handcuffed and shot in the head, then set on fire, said Hassan, a doctor. He said protesters believed the 13 had been executed by fellow security men for refusing to attack protesters.

Gaddafi was last seen on Friday, when riding atop a truck he passed through crowds of his own cheering supporters near Tripoli’s Green Square. He did not speak publicly at the event, and has not been seen since.

Venezuela’s information minister on Monday denied suggestions that Gaddafi was headed to the South American country.

Andres Izarra said in an email sent to The Associated Press that “it’s false” that Gaddafi is flying to Venezuela.

He did not elaborate.

Izarra was responding to inquiries about a statement by Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague, who said he had seen “some information to suggest” Gaddafi was on his way to Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is an ally of Gaddafi.

Chavez, who shares Gaddafi’s antagonistic stance toward the United States, last met with his Libyan counterpart in October during a trip to Tripoli, where officials signed economic cooperation agreements.

During his visit to Libya, Chavez received an honorary degree from Tripoli’s Academy of Higher Education.

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