libya - AP - Feburary 22 2011
Residents stand on a tank holding a pre-Gadhafi era national flag inside a security forces compound in Benghazi, Libya on February 21, 2011. Photo by AP
Text size

Deep rifts opened in Muammar Gadhafi's regime, with Libyan government officials at home and abroad resigning, air force pilots defecting and a bloody crackdown on protest in the capital of Tripoli, where cars and buildings were burned. World leaders expressed outrage Monday at the vicious forms of repression used against the demonstrators.

Gadhafi went on state TV early Tuesday to attempt to show he was still in charge. The longest serving Arab leader appeared briefly on TV to dispel rumors that he had fled. Sitting in a car in front of what appeared to be his residence, he said, "I am here to show that I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela."

"Don't believe those misleading dog stations," Gadhafi said, referring to the media reports that he had left the country. The video clip and comments lasted less than a minute - unusual for the mercurial leader, who is known for rambling speeches that often last hours.

Pro-Gadhafi militia drove through Tripoli with loudspeakers and told people not to leave their homes, witnesses said, as security forces sought to keep the unrest that swept eastern parts of the country - leaving the second-largest city of Benghazi in protesters' control - from overwhelming the capital of 2 million people.

Warplanes swooped low over Tripoli in the evening and snipers took up position on roofs, apparently to stop people outside the capital from joining protests, according to Mohammed Abdul-Malek, a London-based opposition activist in touch with residents.

The eruption of turmoil in the capital after seven days of protests and bloody clashes in Libya's eastern cities sharply escalated the challenge to Gadhafi. His security forces have unleashed the bloodiest crackdown of any Arab country against the wave of protests sweeping the region, which toppled leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

At least 233 people have been killed so far, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. The difficulty in getting information from Libya made obtaining a precise death toll impossible. Communications to Tripoli appeared to have been cut, and residents could not be reached by phone from outside the country.

Libyan air force pilots expressed their indignation at the killing of the protestors by defecting to Europe. Two Mirage warplanes from the Libyan air force fled a Tripoli air base and landed on the nearby island of Malta, and their pilots - two colonels - asked for political asylum, Maltese military officials said.

Key Libyan diplomats disowned Muammar Gadhafi's regime and the country's deputy UN ambassador called on the longtime ruler to step down because of the bloody crackdown on protesters.

The Libyan ambassador to the United States also said he could no longer support Gadhafi. Ali Adjali told BBC World that the reports of firing from warplanes spurred his decision not to support the government anymore. "To me it is a very sad moment seeing Libyans killing other Libyans," he said. "I'm not supporting the government killing its people," Adjali said.

Almost all Libyan diplomats at the United Nations backed deputy ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi's pleas to Gadhafi to end his 40-year rule and to the international community to intervene. As diplomatic support for Gadhafi began to crumble, Dabbashi warned that if he doesn't leave, the Libyan people will get rid of him.

Dabbashi, the deputy UN ambassador, also said he and the UN diplomats were not resigning because they served the people of Libya and not the regime. "This is in fact a declaration of war against the Libyan people," he told reporters, surrounded by a dozen Libyan diplomats. "The regime of Gadhafi has already started the genocide against the Libyan people."

The UN spokesperson's office said late Monday that the Security Council had scheduled consultations on the situation in Libya for Tuesday morning. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hopes that the Security Council will treat the matter with urgency and that it was up to them to decide whether to call for a no-fly zone over Libya to protect protesters from attacks by Libyan aircraft.

Ban expressed outrage late Monday at the reported aerial attacks."I have seen very disturbing and shocking scenes, where Libyan authorities have been firing at demonstrators from warplanes and helicopters," Ban told reporters in Los Angeles. "This is unacceptable. This must stop immediately. This is a serious violation of international humanitarian law."

The first major protests to hit an OPEC country - and major supplier to Europe - sent oil prices jumping, and the industry has begun eyeing reserves touched only after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the first Gulf War in 1991.

State TV quoted Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, as saying the military conducted airstrikes on remote areas, away from residential neighborhoods, on munitions warehouses, denying reports that warplanes attacked Tripoli and Benghazi.

Witnesses say they saw people shot, scores of burned cars and shops, and what appeared to be armed mercenaries who looked as if they were from other African countries. Many billboards and posters of Gadhafi were smashed or burned along a road to downtown Tripoli, emboldening protesters, said a man who lives on the western outskirts of the capital.

The heaviest fighting so far has been in the east. Security forces in Benghazi opened fire Sunday on protesters storming police stations and government buildings. But in several instances, units of the military 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 Libya's old monarchy, toppled in 1969 in 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 lawyer Amal Roqaqie.

In Benghazi, cars honked their horns in celebration and protesters in the streets chanted "Long live Libya" on Monday, a day after bloody clashes that killed at least 60 people. "Youth volunteers directed traffic and guarded homes and public facilities," said Najla, a lawyer and university lecturer in Benghazi. She and other residents 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 a doctor named Hassan, who asked not to be identified further for fear of reprisals. He said protesters believed the 13 had been executed by fellow security forces for refusing to attack 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.