Libya — Militiamen
loyal to Moammar Gaddafi clamped down in Tripoli, with the sound of
gunfire ringing in the air, while protesters who control much of the
eastern half of Libya claimed new gains in cities and towns closer to
the heart of Gaddafi's regime in the capital.
they had taken over Misrata, which would be the largest city in the
western half in the country to fall into their hands. Clashes broke out
over the past two days in the town of Sabratha, west of the capital,
where the army and militiamen were trying to put down protesters who
overwhelmed security headquarters and government buildings, a news
website close to the government reported.
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Two air force pilots jumped from parachutes from their Russian-made
Sukhoi fighter jet and let it crash, rather than carry out orders to
bomb Libya's second largest city, Benghazi, which is now in opposition
hands, the website Quryna reported, citing an unidentified officer in
the air force control room.
One of the pilots was from Gaddafi's tribe, the Gadhadhfa, said Farag
al-Maghrabi, a local resident who saw the pilots and the wreckage of the
jet, which crashed in a deserted area outside the key oil port of
International outrage mounted after Gaddafi on Tuesday went on state TV
and in a fist-pounding speech called on his supporters to take to the
streets to fight protesters. Gaddafi's retaliation has already been the
harshest in the Arab world to the wave of anti-government protests
sweeping the Middle East.
Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of some 1,000
people killed in the violence in Libya were "credible," although he
stressed information about casualties was incomplete. The New York-based
Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at nearly 300, according to a
Gaddafi's speech appeared to have brought out a heavy force of
supporters and militiamen that largely prevented major protests in the
capital Tuesday night or Wednesday. Through the night, gunfire was
heard, said one woman who lives near downtown.
"Mercenaries are everywhere with weapons. You can't open a window or
door. Snipers hunt people," she said. "We are under siege, at the mercy
of a man who is not a Muslim."
During the day Wednesday, more gunfire was heard near Gaddafi's
residence, but in many parts of the city of 2 million residents were
venturing out to stores, some residents said. The government sent out
text messages urging people to go back to their jobs, aiming to show
that life was returning to normal. The residents spoke on condition of
anonymity for fear of retaliation.
But Libya's upheaval, just over a week old, has shattered the hold of Gaddafi's regime across much of the country. Protesters claim to hold
towns and cities along nearly the entire eastern half of the 1,000-mile
Mediterranean coastline, from the Egyptian border. In parts, they have
set up their own jury-rigged self-administrations.
At the Egyptian border, guards had fled, and local tribal elders have
formed local committees to take their place. "Welcome to the new Libya,"
a graffiti spray-painted at the crossing proclaimed. Fawzy Ignashy, a
former soldier, now in civilian clothes at the border, said that early
in the protests, some commanders ordered troops to fire on protesters,
but then tribal leaders stepped in and ordered them to stop.
"They did because they were from here. So the officers fled," he said.
A defense committee of local residents was even guarding one of Gaddafi's once highly secretive anti-aircraft missile bases outside the
city of Tobruk. "This is the first time I've seen missiles like these up
close," admitted Abdelsalam al-Gedani, one of the guards, dressed in an
overcoat and carrying a Kalashnikov automatic rifle.
Protesters have claimed control all the way to the city of Ajdabiya,
about 480 miles (800 kilometers) east of Tripoli, encroaching on the key
oil fields around the Gulf of Sidra.
That has left Gaddafi's power centered around Tripoli, in the far west
and parts of the country's center. But that appeared to be weakening in
Protesters in Misrata were claiming victory after several days of
fighting with Gaddafi loyalists in the city, about 120 miles (200
kilometers) east of Tripoli.
Residents were honking horns in celebration and raising the pre-Gaddafi flags of the Libyan monarchy, said Faraj al-Misrati, a local doctor. He
said six people had been killed and 200 wounded in clashes that began
Feb. 18 and eventually drove out pro-Gaddafi militiamen.
Residents had formed committees to clean the streets, protect the city
and treat the injured, he said. "The solidarity among the people here is
amazing, even the disabled are helping out."
An audio statement posted on the Internet was reportedly from armed
forces officers in Misrata proclaiming "our total support" for the
New videos posted by Libya's opposition on Facebook also showed scores
of anti-government protesters raising the flag from the pre-Gaddafi monarchy on a building in Zawiya, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of
Tripoli. Another showed protesters lining up cement blocks and setting
tires ablaze to fortify positions on a square inside the capital.
The footage couldn't be independently confirmed.
Further west, armed forces deployed in Sabratha, a town famed for nearby
ancient Roman ruins, in a bid to regain control after protesters burned
government buildings and police stations, the Quryna news website
reported. It said clashes had erupted between soldiers and residents in
the past nights and that residents were also reporting an influx of
pro-Gaddafi militias that have led heaviest crackdown on protesters.
The opposition also claimed control in Zwara, about 30 miles (50
kilometers) from the Tunisian border in the west, after local army units
sided with the protesters and police fled.
"The situation here is very secure, the people here have organized
security committees, and there are people who have joined us from the
army," said a 25-year-old unemployed university graduate in Zwara. "This
man (Gaddafi) has reached the point that he's saying he will bring
armies from African (to fight protesters). That means he is isolated,"
The division of the country — and defection of some army units to the
protesters — raises the possibility the opposition could try an assault
on the capital. On the Internet, there were calls by protesters for all
policemen, armed forces and youth to march to Tripoli on Friday.
In his speech Tuesday night, Gaddafi defiantly vowed to fight to his
"last drop of blood" and roared at supporters to strike back against
Libyan protesters to defend his embattled regime.
"You men and women who love Gaddafi... get out of your homes and fill
the streets," Gaddafi said. "Leave your homes and attack them in their
Gaddafi appears to have lost the support of several tribes and his own
diplomats, including Libya's ambassador in Washington, Ali Adjali, and
deputy UN Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi.
The Libyan Embassy in Austria also condemned the use of "excessive
violence against peaceful demonstrators" and said in a statement
Wednesday that it was representing the Libyan people.
International alarm has risen over the crisis, which sent oil prices
soaring to the highest level in more than two years on Tuesday and
sparked a scramble by European and other countries to get their citizens
out of the North African nation. The UN Security Council held an
emergency meeting that ended with a statement condemning the crackdown,
expressing "grave concern" and calling for an "immediate end to the
violence" and steps to address the legitimate demands of the Libyan
French President Nicolas Sarkozy also pressed Wednesday for European
Union sanctions against Libya's regime because of its violent crackdown
on protesters, and raised the possibility of cutting all economic and
business ties between the EU and the North African nation.
"The continuing brutal and bloody repression against the Libyan civilian
population is revolting," Sarkozy said in a statement. "The
international community cannot remain a spectator to these massive
violations of human rights."
Italian news reports have said witnesses and hospital sources in Libya
are estimating there are 1,000 dead in Tripoli, the Libyan capital,
"We have no complete information about the number of people who have
died," Frattini said in a speech to a Catholic organization in Rome
ahead of a briefing in Parliament on Libya. "We believe that the
estimates of about 1,000 are credible."
Libya is the biggest supplier of oil to Italy, which has extensive
energy, construction and other business interests in the north African
country and decades of strong ties.
Frattini said the Italian government is asking that the "horrible bloodshed" cease immediately.