BENGHAZI: Forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi launched a fierce counter-attack Thursday, fighting gunbattles with rebels who have threatened the Libyan leader by seizing important towns close to the capital.
The opposition were already in control of major centres in the east, including the regional capital Benghazi, and there were reports that the towns of Misrata and Zuara in the west had also fallen and brought the tide of rebellion closer to Qaddafi’s power base.
At least 640 people have been killed in Libya in protests against the regime of Qaddafi since they started last week, the International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR) said Wednesday in Paris.
The figure is more than double the official Libyan government toll of 300 dead, and includes 275 dead in Tripoli and 230 dead in the protest epicentre in the eastern city of Benghazi, the IFHR’s Souhayr Belhassen told AFP.
The Benghazi toll includes “150 soldiers who were executed by their officers in Benghazi for refusing to fire on crowds” of protesters, she said. Belhassen, who heads the Paris-based IFHR, said the toll was based on military sources for Tripoli and on Libyan rights groups’ assessments in Benghazi and elsewhere. The Libyan government said Tuesday that 300 people had died in the protests, including 111 soldiers.
Gunbattles in Zawiyah, an oil terminal 50 km from the capital, left 10 people dead, a Libyan newspaper said. France’s top human rights official said up to 2,000 people might have died so far in the uprising.
In a rambling appeal for calm, Qaddafiblamed the revolt on al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and said the protesters were fuelled by milk and Nescafe spiked with hallucinogenic drugs, Gaddafi, who just two days ago vowed in a televised address to crush the revolt and fight to the last, showed none of the fist-thumping rage of that speech. This time, he spoke to state television by phone without appearing in person, and his tone seemed more conciliatory. “Their ages are 17. They give them pills at night, they put hallucinatory pills in their drinks, their milk, their coffee, their Nescafe,” Qaddafisaid. A Tripoli resident, who did not want to be identified because he feared reprisals for speaking to the foreign media, told Reuters: “It seems like he realised that his speech Wednesday with the strong language had no effect on the people. He’s realising it is going to be a matter of time before the final chapter: the battle of Tripoli”.
The White House said it was examining all options, including imposing a no-fly zone over Libya, in its response to the Libyan government’s attempts to crush the revolt. The Swiss government said it had frozen assets belonging to Qaddafiand his family. As governments and foreign companies scrambled to evacuate foreign nationals working in Libya, a US-chartered ferry remained docked in Tripoli with 285 passengers on board. A former Libyan Justice Minister Mustafa Mohamed Abud Al Jeleil told a Swedish newspaper he expected the increasingly isolated Libyan leader to commit suicide the way Adolf Hitler did at the end of World War-II rather than surrender or flee.
Forces loyal to the Libyan leader attacked anti-government militias controlling Misrata, Libya’s third-biggest city, 200 km east of Tripoli, and several people were killed in fighting near the city’s airport.
Al Jazeera quoted a senior officer who had joined the rebels as saying the government used poisonous gas against demonstrators at Misrata’s airport early Thursday, although such reports could not be verified.
Soldiers were reported along the roads approaching Tripoli. In Zawiyah, witnesses said pro-and anti-Qaddafiforces were firing at each other in the streets. Libya’s Quryna newspaper said 23 people were killed and 44 wounded in the town. Quoting medical sources it said “intense exchange of fire” was preventing the wounded from reaching hospitals. Some men were removing wounded kin from hospitals for fear of them falling into the hands of Qaddafiloyalists. “It is chaotic there. There are people with guns and swords,” said Mohamed Jaber, who passed through Zawiyah on his way to Tunisia Thursday. Anti-government militias were in control of Zuara, about 120 km west of Tripoli. There was no sign of police or military and the town was controlled by “popular committees” armed with automatic weapons.
In the east of Libya, many soldiers have withdrawn from active service and some are openly supporting the revolt. Protesters have also taken control of Al Kufra, some 1,000 km southeast of Benghazi, Quryna newspaper said.
The uprising has virtually halted Libya’s oil exports, said the head of Italy’s ENI, Libya’s biggest foreign oil operator. The unrest has driven world oil prices up to around $120 a barrel, stoking concern about the economic recovery. Key Libyan oil and product terminals to the east of the capital are in the hands of rebels, according to Benghazi residents in touch with people in region. The oil and product terminals at Ras Lanuf and Marsa El Brega were being protected, they said, amid fears of attacks by pro-Qaddafiforces.
The desert nation pumps nearly two per cent of the world’s oil. According to another report, the United States called Thursday for Libya’s expulsion from the UN Human Rights Council, accusing the embattled regime of suppressing the rights of its people. “We support expelling Libya from the Human Rights Council,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters in Washington. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several of her counterparts are scheduled to attend another meeting of the council Monday.