Gaddafi’s forces strike back as opponents move to Tripoli

Libyan strongman blames bin Laden for revolt; US says all options open, including military intervention; Livni urges Libyans to embrace democracy

Anti-Gaddafi gunmen in Libya 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Anti-Gaddafi gunmen in Libya 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
Army units and militiamen loyal to Muammar Gaddafi struck back on Thursday against Libyans rising up in cities close to the capital, attacking a mosque where many were holding an anti-government sit-in and battling others who had seized control of an airport.
Medical officials said 15 people had been killed in the clashes.
In a rambling phone call to state television, Gaddafi accused Osama bin Laden of being behind the uprising. The Libyan strongman said the revolt that began on February 15 had been carried out by young men hopped up on hallucinogens given to them “in their coffee with milk, like Nescafe.”
“Shame on you, people of Zawiya, control your children,” he said, addressing residents of the city 50 km. west of Tripoli, where the mosque attack took place.
“They are loyal to bin Laden,” he said of those involved in the uprising.  “What do you have to do with bin Laden, people of Zawiya? They are exploiting young people... I insist it is bin Laden.”
The attacks on Thursday aimed to push back a revolt that has moved closer to Gaddafi’s bastion in Tripoli, in the country’s West. Most of the eastern half of Libya has already broken away, and parts of Gaddafi’s regime have frayed. Residents of the dissident- held east vowed on Thursday to march on Tripoli as a string of nearby towns fell under their control, AFP reported.
International momentum has been building for action to punish Gaddafi’s regime for the bloodshed. US President Barack Obama said on Wednesday the suffering in Libya “is outrageous and it is unacceptable,” and he directed his administration to prepare a full range of options, including possible sanctions that could freeze the assets and ban travel to the US by Libyan officials.
The State Department said that to stop the violence, the US is prepared to take steps beyond seeking to suspend Libya from the UN Nations Human Rights Council, Reuters reported.
Late on Thursday night, Obama was to speak with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron to discuss the situation.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that all options, including sanctions, would be reviewed during the calls. Sarkozy has raised the possibility of the European Union cutting off economic ties with the Gaddafi regime.
In Israel, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni told the BBC on Thursday that Libya is at a “crossroads,” and urged Libyans to embrace democracy in the post-Gaddafi era. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also called for the international community to condemn the Libyan government.
BBC correspondent John Simpson, one of the few foreign reporters able to sneak into the country, said from Benghazi that it seemed “inconceivable” that Gaddafi would be able to reclaim control of the country.
In the latest blow to the Libyan leader, a cousin who was one of his closest aides, Ahmed Gaddaf al-Dam, announced that he had defected to Egypt in protest against the regime’s bloody crackdown. He denounced “grave violations to human rights and human and international laws.”
Rough weather in the country’s west left hundreds of Americans stranded on a ferry in Tripoli. The 600-passenger catamaran was not likely to leave for Malta until Friday.
In Zawiya, an army unit attacked the Souq Mosque, where regime opponents had been camped for days in a protest calling for Gaddafi’s ouster, a witness said. The soldiers opened fire with automatic weapons and hit the mosque’s minaret with fire from an antiaircraft gun, he said. Some of the young men among the protesters, who were inside the mosque and in a nearby lot, had hunting rifles for protection.
A doctor at a field clinic set up at the mosque said he saw the bodies of 10 dead, shot in the head and chest, as well as some 150 wounded.
The witness said that a day earlier, an envoy from Gaddafi had come to the city and warned protesters: “Either leave or you will see a massacre.”
Zawiya is a key city near an oil port and refineries.
After Thursday’s assault, thousands massed in Zawiya’s main Martyrs Square near the mosque, shouting for Gaddafi to “leave, leave,” the witness said.
“People came to send a clear message: We are not afraid of death or your bullets,” he said.
The other attack came at a small airport outside Misrata, Libya’s third largest city, where anti-government rebels claimed control on Wednesday. Pro-government militiamen with rocketpropelled grenades and mortars barraged a line of their rivals who were guarding the airport, some armed with rifles, according to one of the rebels who was involved in the battle.
Gaddafi’s control now has been reduced to the northwest corner around Tripoli, the southwest deserts and parts of the country’s center. The uprisings in Misrata, Zawiya and several small towns between the capital and Tunisian border have further whittled away that bastion.
A European source told the Arabic-language daily Al-Quds al- Arabi that the US has threatened to send NATO warplanes to Libya in response to allegations that the Libyan government has been using aircraft to bomb civilians.
The source also said that NATO warships could jam Libyan electronic communication to prevent further attacks from the Libyan air force.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said estimates of around 1,000 people killed in the violence in Libya were “credible,” although he stressed that information about casualties was incomplete. Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at nearly 300, according to a partial count.
Gaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam claimed on Thursday that the reported death tolls had been exaggerated, although he did not provide his own figure. In a press conference aired on state TV, he said the number of people killed by police and the army had been limited and “talking about hundreds and thousands [killed] is a joke.”