Mon February 21, 2011

Gadhafi's Son: Libya Will Fight 'Until The Last Bullet'

Deep cracks opened up in Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya after more than 40 years in power, with diplomats abroad and the justice minister at home resigning, air force pilots defecting and a fire raging at the main government hall after clashes in the capital, Tripoli. Protesters called for another night of defiance in Tripoli's main square, despite the government's heavy crackdown.

Gadhafi's regime appeared to be preparing a new major assault in the capital Monday night in an attempt to crush the unrest that has already swept the eastern parts of the country, leaving Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, in protesters' control.

State TV at nightfall Monday 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 Tripoli's central Green Square and in front of Gadhafi's residence.

Military warplanes were seen swooping low over the city in the evening, and snipers had taken position on the roofs of buildings around Tripoli, apparently to stop people outside the capital from joining the march, according to Mohammed Abdul-Malek, a London-based opposition activist in touch with residents.

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

Solid information on the situation in Libya has been difficult to come by as foreign journalists have not been allowed into the country.

International Concerns

The eruption of turmoil in the capital of 2 million people — after six days of protests and bloody clashes in Libya's eastern cities — sharply escalates the challenge to Gadhafi, the Arab world's longest-ruling leader. His security forces have unleashed the bloodiest crackdown of any Arab country against the wave of protests sweeping the region, which toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. At least 233 people have been killed so far, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.

The head of influential Al Warfalla tribe in eastern Libya told Al Jazeera that his tribe would cut off all oil exports if the crackdown on protesters doesn't stop. He also said Gadhafi should leave the country.

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 Monday amid investor concern.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting neighboring Egypt, called the Libyan government's crackdown "appalling."

Many European countries prepared to evacuate their citizens from Libya and the U.S. State Department ordered all non-emergency personnel out of the country.

At European Union talks in Brussels, British Foreign Secretary William Hague called for restraint. But Mediterranean countries Italy, Malta and Cyprus voiced unease over the idea of sanctions against Libya, worried that instability in the region could unleash a new wave of migrants.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini voiced concern over the prospect of what he called an Islamic state in eastern Libya near Egypt.

Egyptian officials said the border between the two countries was no longer manned by Libyan troops. The Egyptian army was regulating the flow between the two countries. Several aid convoys carrying medical supplies were traveling to the border to help Libyans in the east.

Activist Suleiman al-Zugeilil was among those who fled. Speaking to NPR in the Egyptian coastal city of Marsa Matrouh, he said security forces loyal to Gadhafi fled from the towns of Tobruk, al-Baida and Benghazi.

Clashes In Benghazi

The heaviest fighting so far has been in the east. In Benghazi, security forces opened fire 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 Gadhafi-led military coup, over Benghazi's main courthouse and on tanks around the city.

"Gadhafi needs one more push and he is gone," said Amal Roqaqie, a lawyer at the Benghazi court, saying 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."

Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, went on state TV in the early hours 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."

"Moammar Gadhafi, 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 also promised "historic" reforms in Libya if protests stop, and on Monday state TV said 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.

Officials Resign

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

It also reported the first major sign of discontent in Gadhafi's government, saying Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil resigned from his post to protest the "excessive use of force against unarmed protesters."

Libya's U.N. ambassadors called for Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi and his commanders and aides be put on trial for "the mass killings in Libya."

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

Two Libyan air force pilots — both colonels — landed in Malta, seeking political asylum. They surrendered to Maltese authorities and were taken for questioning. They apparently took off from a base near Tripoli and flew close to the ground to avoid radar detection. Some news reports said the pilots had been ordered to bombard protesters in various parts of Benghazi.

Backlash In Tripoli

Tripoli was largely shut down Monday, with schools, government offices and most stores closed, except for a few bakeries serving residents 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 planed new marches Monday evening in the capital's main Green Square and at the leader's residence. A similar march the night before sparked scenes of mayhem in the capital.

On Sunday evening, protesters from various parts of 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, according to several witnesses and protesters.

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 Gadhafi, the "Jamahiriya," or "rule by masses," is highly decentralized, run by "popular committees" in a complicated hierarchy that effectively means there is no real center of decision-making except Gadhafi, his sons and their top aides.

Seif has often been put forward as the regime's face of reform and is often cited as a likely successor to his father. Seif's 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 U.S. diplomats is the best-trained and best-equipped force in the military.

With reporting from NPR's J.J. Sutherland, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and Jason Beaubien in Cairo, Sylvia Poggioli in Rome and Nathan Rott in Washington. This story also contains material from The Associated Press. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.