published Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Libya: Gadhafi vows to fight on, die a martyr

By MAGGIE MICHAEL and SARAH EL DEEB

Associated Press

CAIRO — Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi vowed to fight on to his “last drop of blood” and roared at his supporters to take to the streets against protesters in a furious, fist-pounding speech Tuesday after two nights of bloodshed in the capital as his forces tried to crush the uprising that has fragmented his regime.

Gadhafi’s call portended a new round of mayhem in the capital of 2 million people. The night before, residents described a rampage by pro-regime militiamen, who shot on sight anyone found in the streets and opened fire from speeding vehicles at people watching from windows of their homes. Tuesday morning, bodies still lay strewn in some streets.

Gunshots in celebration were heard after Gadhafi’s speech, aired on state TV and on a screen to several hundred supporters in Tripoli’s central Green Square, witnesses said.

Swathed in brown robes and a turban, the country’s leader for nearly 42 years spoke from behind a podium in the entrance of his bombed-out Tripoli residence hit by U.S. airstrikes in the 1980s and left unrepaired as a symbol of defiance.

At times the camera panned back to show the outside of the building and its towering monument of a gold-colored fist crushing an American fighter jet. But the view also gave a surreal image of Gadhafi, shouting and waving his arms wildly all alone in a broken-down lobby with no audience, surrounded by torn tiles dangling from the ceiling, shattered concrete pillars and bare plumbing pipes.

“Libya wants glory, Libya wants to be at the pinnacle, at the pinnacle of the world,” he proclaimed, pounding his fist on the podium. “I am a fighter, a revolutionary from tents ... I will die as a martyr at the end,” he said, vowing to fight “to my last drop of blood.”

Gadhafi depicted the protesters as misguided youths, who had been given drugs and money by a “small, sick group” to attack police and government buildings. He said the uprising was fomented by “bearded men” — a reference to Islamic fundamentalists — and Libyans living abroad. He called on supporters to take to the streets to attack protesters.

“You men and women who love Gadhafi ... get out of your homes and fill the streets,” he said. “Leave your homes and attack them in their lairs.”

“The police cordons will be lifted, go out and fight them,” he said, urging youth to form local committees across the country “for the defense of the revolution and the defense of Gadhafi.”

“Forward, forward, forward!” he barked at the speech’s conclusion, pumping both fists in the air as he stormed away from the podium. He was kissed by about a dozen supporters, some in security force uniforms. Then he climbed into a golf cart-like vehicle and puttered away.

The turmoil in the capital escalates a week of protests and bloody clashes in Libya’s eastern cities that have shattered Gadhafi’s grip on the nation.

Many cities in the east appeared to be under the control of protesters after units of Gadhafi’s army defected. Protesters in the east claimed to hold several oil fields and facilities and said they were protecting them against damage or vandalism. The regime has been hit by a string of defections by ambassadors abroad, including its U.N. delegation, and a few officials at home.

In response, Gadhafi’s 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 62 people were killed in violence in Tripoli since Sunday, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, but it cautioned that that figure came from only two hospitals. That comes on top of at least 233 people killed across the so far in the uprising, counted by the group from hospitals around the country.

The head of the U.N. human rights agency, Navi Pillay, called for an investigation, saying widespread and systematic attacks against civilians “may amount to crimes against humanity.”

The U.N. Security Council was holding an emergency session Tuesday, and Western diplomats were pushing for it to demand an end to the retaliation against protesters. Libya’s deputy U.N. ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi called Monday for the world body to enforce a no-fly zone over cities to prevent mercenaries and military equipment from reaching the regime. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it was up to the council whether to discuss the proposal.

The first major protests to hit an OPEC country — and major supplier to Europe — sent oil prices soaring to more than $93 a barrel Tuesday. A string of international oil companies have begun evacuating their expatriate workers or their families, and the Spanish oil company Repsol-YPF said it suspended production in Libya on Tuesday. It accounted for about 3.8 percent of Libya’s total production of 1.6 million barrels a day.

World leaders also have expressed outrage. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on Gadhafi to “stop this unacceptable bloodshed” and said the world was watching the events “with alarm.”

Tripoli streets were largely empty during the day Tuesday, except for people venturing out for food, wary of militia attacks.

One man in his 50s said residents of his neighborhood were piling up roadblocks of concrete, bricks and wood to try to slow militiamen. He said he had seen several streets with funeral tents mourning the dead. He described spending the night before barricaded in his home, blankets over the windows, as militiamen rampaged in the streets until dawn.

Buses unloaded militia fighters — Libyans and foreigners — in several neighborhoods. Others sped in vehicles with guns mounted on the top, opening fire, including at people watching from windows, he said. “I know of two different families, one family had a 4-year-old who was shot and killed on a balcony in the eastern part of the city, and another lady on the balcony was shot in the head,” he said.

He, like other residents, contacted by The Associated Press, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

One of the heaviest battlegrounds was the impoverished, densely populated district of Fashloum. There, militiamen shot any “moving human being” with live ammunition, including ambulances, so wounded were left in the streets to die, one resident said.

He said that as he fled the neighborhood Monday night, he ran across a group of militiamen, including foreign fighters. “The Libyans (among them) warned me to leave and showed me bodies of the dead and told me: ‘We were given orders to shoot anybody who moves in the place,”’ said the resident.

Militias — which many witnesses say include foreign fighters who appear to be from sub-Saharan Africa — have taken the forefront in the crackdown in Tripoli. That is in part because Gadhafi has traditionally kept his military and other armed forces weakened to prevent any challenge.

The week of upheaval in Libya has weakened — if not broken for now — the control of Gadhafi’s regime in parts of the east.

Protesters claim to control a string of cities across just under half of Libya’s 1,600-kilometer-long (1,000 mile) Mediterranean coast, from the Egyptian border in the east to the city of Ajdabiya, an important site in the oil fields of central Libya, said Tawfiq al-Shahbi, a protest organizer in the eastern city of Tobruk. He said had visited the crossing station into Egypt and that border guards had fled.

In Tobruk and Benghazi, the country’s second largest city, protesters were raising the pre-Gadhafi flag of Libya’s monarchy on public buildings, he and other protesters said.

Protesters and local tribesmen were protecting several oil fields and facilities around Ajdabiya, said Ahmed al-Zawi, a resident there. They had also organized watch groups to guard streets and entrances to the city, he said.

Residents are also guarding one of Libya’s main oil export ports, Zuweita, and the pipelines feeding into it, he said. The pipelines are off and several tankers in the part left empty, said al-Zawi, who said he visited Zuweita on Tuesday morning.

In Benghazi, protesters over the weekend overran police stations and security headquarters, taking control of the streets with the help of army units that broke away and sided with them.

Benghazi residents, however, remained in fear of a regime backlash. One doctor in the city said Tuesday many spent the night outside their homes, hearing rumors that airstrikes and artillery assaults were imminent.

“We know that although we are in control of the city, Gadhafi loyalists are still here hiding and they can do anything anytime,” he said.

Gadhafi, the longest serving Arab leader, appeared briefly on TV early Tuesday to dispel rumors that he had fled. Sitting in a car in front of what appeared to be his residence and holding an umbrella out of the passenger side door, he told an interviewer that he had wanted to go to the capital’s Green Square to talk to his supporters gathered there, but the rain stopped him.

“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.

But Tuesday evening’s speech lasted well over a half hour. During it, Gadhafi recounting his days as a young revolutionary leader who “liberated” Libya — a reference to the 1969 military coup that brought him to power — and his defiance against U.S. airstrikes.

He insisted that since he has no official title, he cannot resign — Gadhafi is referred to as the “brother leader,” but is not president. He said he had not ordered police to use any force used against protesters — that his supporters had come out voluntarily to defend him. “I haven’t ordered a single bullet fired,” he said, warning that if he does, “everything will burn.”

He said that if protests didn’t end, he would stage a “holy march” with millions of supporters to cleanse Libya. He demanded protesters in Benghazi hand over weapons taken from captured police stations and military bases, warning of separatism and civil war.

“No one allows his country to be a joke or let a mad man separate a part of it,” he declared.

———

Associated Press writers Hamza Hendawi in Cairo, John Heilprin in Geneva and Barbara Whitacker in New York contributed to this report.

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