Gaddafi keeps grip on capital as revolt spreads

Death toll estimates continue to climb as eastern region slips toward rebel control; US, EU threaten sanctions.

Gaddafi speech TV 311 AP (photo credit: Associated Press)
Gaddafi speech TV 311 AP
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Militiamen loyal to Muammar Gaddafi clamped down in Tripoli on Wednesday, but cracks in his regime spread elsewhere across the nation as the rebellion controlling much of eastern Libya claimed new gains closer to the capital.
Two pilots let their warplane crash in the desert and parachuted to safety rather than bomb an opposition-held city.
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The opposition said it had taken over Misrata, which would be the largest city in the western half of the country to fall into its 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.
The 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 opposition-held Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, the website Quryna reported, citing an unidentified officer in the air force control room.
One of the pilots – identified by the report as Ali Omar Gaddafi – 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 Breqa.
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International outrage mounted after Gaddafi went on state TV Tuesday, and in a fist-pounding speech called on his supporters to take to the streets to fight protesters.
Gaddafi’s retaliation has been the harshest in the Arab world to the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East.
“Gaddafi will do everything – and I mean everything – in order not to lose his grip on power,” said Prof. Yehudit Ronen, a Libya expert in Bar-Ilan University’s Political Science Department and the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.
“I really don’t see how Gaddafi can continue to hold onto power for a long time, functioning as a head of state, handling the country’s economic and oil affairs – let alone diplomatic relations – after killing so many people, and I assume the number is even greater than we know now,” Ronen told The Jerusalem Post. “So I think the position of the regime is steadily deteriorating and approaching its end.”
Meanwhile, reports emerged on Wednesday of Gaddafi family members trying to flee the country. Al-Jazeera reported that government sources in Malta said Gaddafi’s daughter Ayesha was on board the National Libyan Airlines plane that tried to land in the island country on Thursday, and that the plane had been refused permission to land.
Al-Jazeera also reported that a private Libyan jet that was prevented from landing at Beirut’s airport was carrying the wife of one of Gaddafi’s sons.
Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of 1,000 people killed in the violence in Libya were “credible,” although he stressed that information about casualties was incomplete. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at nearly 300, according to a partial count.
A French doctor working in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi told Le Point magazine that more than 2,000 people had been killed in that city alone in the past days of fighting, AFP reported. The 60-year-old anesthetist, who has been living in the Libyan city for over a year, said that on the first day of fighting in Benghazi, “our ambulances counted 75 bodies... 200 on the second [day], then more than 500.”
On the third day, he added, “I ran out of morphine and medications.”
An exiled Libyan opposition figure claimed that international organizations following developments in Libya knew of over 10,000 deaths and around 50,000 wounded in the past week of protests, Israel Radio reported.
Hadi Shalluf, a lawyer who lives in France and is a counsel at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, made the remarks in an interview on Al-Arabiya television.
Precise figures as to the death toll in Libya are difficult to ascertain, as foreign journalists are barred and the regime has cut off almost every method of communicating with the outside world.
The safety of US citizens was a prime concern after failed attempts earlier this week to get them out by plane. But hundreds of Americans safely boarded a 600-passenger ferry at Tripoli’s As-shahab port on Wednesday for the five-hour journey to Malta.
Also on Wednesday, Libya’s ex-justice minister was quoted as telling a Swedish newspaper that Gaddafi personally ordered the Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people in 1988.
“I have proof that Gaddafi gave the order about Lockerbie,” Mustafa Abdel-Jalil was quoted as saying in an interview with Expressen, a Stockholm-based tabloid.
Abdel-Jalil, who stepped down as justice minister to protest the clampdown on antigovernment demonstrations, didn’t detail the proof.
Expressen said it interviewed the ex-minister at the local parliament of a large city in Libya.
Abdel-Jalil told the paper that Gaddafi gave the order to Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only man convicted in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground.
“To hide it, he [Gaddafi] did everything in his power to get Megrahi back from Scotland,” Abdel-Jalil was quoted as saying.
Megrahi was granted a compassionate release from a Scottish prison in August 2009 on the grounds that he was suffering from prostate cancer and would die soon, but he has defied expectations and remains alive.
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.
A senior aide to Gaddafi’s son Seif al- Islam has also resigned to protest against the violence.
“I resigned from the Gaddafi Foundation on Sunday to express dismay against violence,” Youssef Sawani said in a text message sent to a Reuters correspondent.
He was executive director of the foundation, which has been the younger Gaddafi’s main vehicle for wielding influence.
The United States and the European Union vowed on Wednesday to consider sanctions against Libya, with the EU calling the attacks possible “crimes against humanity.”
“The continuing brutal and bloody repression against the Libyan civilian population is revolting,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement, raising the possibility of cutting off all economic and business ties between the EU and Libya. “The international community cannot remain a spectator to these massive violations of human rights.”
The bloc’s leaders had “agreed in a statement to take further measures,” an EU diplomat said, adding that “in diplomatic terms, it means sanctions.”
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney also condemned the attacks.
“The violence is abhorrent, it is completely unacceptable, and the bloodshed must stop,” Carney said.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York on Wednesday that reports of the Libyan violence constituted “egregious violations” of international and humanitarian law and that those responsible “must be held accountable in courts of law.”
He added that he was gravely concerned about the unpredictable and dangerous situation.
“The violence must stop,” he said, “and those responsible for brutally shedding the blood of innocents must be punished.”
Separately, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told The Associated Press that a no-fly zone may be imposed over Libya to protect civilians from attacks by government aircraft. The regime’s widespread and systematic attacks against civilians “may amount to crimes against humanity,” she said.
Ban did not sanction her call for a no-fly zone when he spoke with reporters.
A UN watchdog group said on Wednesday that Gaddafi was keeping his word about destroying his chemical stockpile for producing mustard gas and had no weapon to deliver a chemical payload.
Reports from Libya say fears the regime will use chemical or biological weapons are rampant among protesters facing Gaddafi’s militias and supporters, and former British Foreign Secretary David Owen said the West should be concerned about that possibility.
“We know that this is a person who could unleash either chemical or biological weapons which he possibly still has,” Owen said on BBC radio on Wednesday.
Gaddafi “is deeply unstable, and has been for 42 years.”
But the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons indicated the use of chemical weapons was unlikely.
All Libya’s delivery systems – 3,300 unloaded aerial bombs – were crushed by bulldozers in 2004 when Gaddafi agreed to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction, said the OPCW, based in The Hague.
Libya destroyed nearly 13.5 metric tons of sulfur mustard last year, about 54 percent of its stockpile. It received an extension to eliminate the rest by May 15, the organization said. Nearly 40 percent of the chemicals used to make sulfur mustard also have been destroyed since 2005, it said. Twiceyearly inspections have found no evidence of Libya reviving the chemical weapons program.
“So far as we know, Libya gave up the capacity to deliver chemical agents seven years ago,” OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan told The Associated Press. “And in the last year we’ve also seen, after some delays, substantial progress toward destroying their existing stockpile of chemical agent, which is all mustard.”
The International Criminal Court on Wednesday said it cannot prosecute alleged crimes against humanity in Libya without an order from the UN Security Council or a request from Libya itself.
Prosecutors at the world’s first permanent war crimes court said they had no jurisdiction in Libya because the North African country never signed the 1998 treaty creating the tribunal. Only the Security Council can instruct the court to intervene against Libya’s will.
Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said “the decision to do justice in Libya should be taken by the Libyan people.”
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.