LIBYAN armed forces launched airstrikes on protesters as the iron-fisted rule of Muammar Gaddafi was rocked overnight with protests gripping the capital and regime loyalists defecting.
Government officials at home and abroad resigned in protest against the purge of protesters, amid reports that warplanes had begun indiscriminate bombing across the capital of Tripoli and the second city of Benghazi, leaving scores dead.
The news came as Gaddafi made his first appearance on on television since the protest began, with the state network saying it was a live broadcast from his Tripoli home.
He appeared for less than a minute on state television about 2am local time and said he was in the capital Tripoli, denying rumours he had to fled to Venezuela amid the unrest sweeping his country. “I am going to meet with the youth in Green Square,” in downtown Tripoli, he said in what state television reported was a live broadcast from the strongman’s home.
“It’s just to prove that I am in Tripoli and not in Venezuela and to deny television reports, those dogs,” he said, holding up an umbrella in pouring rain while about to step into a car.
Seif al-Islam, the son of Muammar Gaddafi, denied “that armed forces had bombarded the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi,” and said that the airstrikes were targeting arms depots outside urban areas. State television reported that “security forces have begun an extensive operation against dens of vandals”.
“The armed forces have bombarded arms depots situated far from populated areas,” the broadcaster reported in a banner across the screen. But Al Jazeera reported airstrikes in the towns of Misratah and Az-Zawiya outside of Tripoli, and the capital itself.
“There is death, fear – and women are crying everywhere. The strikes are concentrated against areas that sent large number of protestors to the streets and there are cars full of foreign fighters firing on people,” a political activist in Tripoli told Al Jazeera.
Two Libyan air force colonels appeared to back up this version of events after fleeing to Malta in their fighter jets, saying they had refused orders to bomb protesters.
The men said they were forced to flee their base in eastern Benghazi when it was taken over by protesters.
“One of the pilots requested political asylum” after the two descended from their single-seater Mirage F1 jets, a Maltese official said.
They were not the only ones to defect. Gaddafi appears to have lost the support of at least three major tribes, several military units and his own diplomats, including the delegation to the United Nations. Deputy UN Ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi accused Gaddafi of committing genocide against his own people in the current crisis.
“He has to leave as soon as possible. He has to stop killing the Libyan people,” Ibrahim Dabbashi told CNN.
Media reports from around the region said Libya’s justice minister, Mustapha Abdeljalil, had also resigned along with Libya’s Arab League envoy and Tripoli’s ambassador to Delhi as well as a diplomat in Beijing.
Libyan officials were also forced to deny that Gaddafi had fled to the country, after British Foreign Secretary William Hague said “information that suggests (Gaddafi) is on his way” to Venezuela. Caracas also issued a denial. Celebrated and influential Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa overnight that any Libyan soldier who can kill Gaddafi should do so “to rid Libya of him,” he told Al Jazeera.
Gaddafi’s security forces have unleashed the bloodiest suppression of any Arab country against the wave of protests sweeping the region, which toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.
Protesters called for another night of defiance against the Arab world’s longest-serving leader, despite the crackdown.
At sunset, pro-Gaddafi militia drove around 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.
Protesters called for a demonstration in Tripoli’s central Green Square and in front of Gaddafi’s residence, but witnesses in various neighbourhoods described a scene of intimidation.
Helicopters hovering above the main seaside boulevard and pro-Gaddafi gunmen firing from moving cars and even shooting at the facades of homes to terrify the population.
Youths trying to gather in the streets were forced to scatter and run for cover by the gunfire.
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.
Meanwhile, state TV showed video of hundreds of Gaddafi supporters rallying in Green Square, waving palm fronds and pictures of the Libyan leader.
Another witness said armed men dressed in militia uniforms roamed the capital’s upscale diplomatic neighborhood and opened fire on a group of protesters gathering to organize a march. People wept over the dead.
“It’s definitely the end of the regime. This has never happened in Libya before. We are praying that it ends quickly,” a Tripoli resident told AFP in Cairo by telephone.
In Benghazi, security forces opened fire on protesters storming police stations and government buildings. But in several instances, units of the military turned against them and sided with protesters.
Yesterday, protesters 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 Gaddafi-led military coup, over Benghazi’s main courthouse and on tanks around the city.
“Gaddafi 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.”
Fire raged at the People’s Hall, the main building for government gatherings where the country’s equivalent of a parliament holds sessions several times a year, the pro-government news website Qureyna said.
Gaddafi supporters in pickup trucks and cars raced through the square, shooting automatic weapons. “They were driving like madmen searching for someone to kill. … It was total chaos, shooting and shouting,” said a 28-year-old protester.
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.
Although government restrictions have complicated the task of compiling a tally, Human Rights Watch said 233 had been killed since last Thursday while the International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR) put the toll at 300-400. As reports of increasing chaos streamed in, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Libya to put an immediate end to “unacceptable bloodshed.”
“The world is watching the situation in Libya with alarm,” she said in a written statement. “We join the international community in strongly condemning the violence in Libya.” “The government of Libya has a responsibility to respect the universal rights of the people, including the right to free expression and assembly.” Washington also ordered all non-essential staff out of Libya and warned Americans to avoid travel to the north African country.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, visiting neighbouring Egypt, called the Libyan government’s crackdown “appalling.” “The regime is using the most vicious forms of repression against people who want to see that country – which is one of the most closed and one of the most autocratic – make progress,” he told reporters in Cairo.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon is “outraged” by reports that security forces fired on demonstrators from war planes and helicopters, his spokesman said. The UN secretary-general released his latest statement just hours after telling Gaddafi to “immediately” halt violence in the North African country.
“The secretary-general is outraged at press reports that the Libyan authorities have been firing at demonstrators from war planes and helicopters,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
“Such attacks against civilians, if confirmed, would constitute a serious violation of international humanitarian law and would be condemned by the secretary-general in the strongest terms.”
The UN leader had a 40-minute telephone conversation with Gaddafi earlier to press for an end to violence and a broad-based dialogue with the opposition.
The UN Security Council will meet later today to discuss the crisis, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, noting he had spoken to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and urged restraint.
“I urged him that the human rights and freedom of assembly and freedom of speech must be fully protected,” Ban said of his 40-minute telephone conversation with the man who has ruled Libya for 41 years. Amid the turmoil, oil prices soared above $105 per barrel, and the Fitch agency downgraded Libya’s debt rating a notch from BBB+ to BBB.
European countries sent planes and ferries to Libya on Monday to evacuate their citizens, and some oil and gas companies pulled their foreign staff out and suspended operations. Many countries had already urged their citizens to avoid nonessential travel to Libya, or recommended that those already there leave on commercial flights.
The federal government has lifted its Libya travel warning to the highest level, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) raised its warning to “Do Not Travel” today and explored evacuation options for about 80 citizens. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the violence that people have seen on their TV screens,” Prime Minister Julia Gillard told reporters.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of the military against peaceful protesters. There is no excuse and no tolerance from the Australian government for violence being wreaked against peaceful protesters. “So our message to the government of Libya, to Colonel Kadhafi, is that they must respect peaceful protests.”
New Zealand, which has about 25 people in the country, raised its travel advice to “extreme risk” and called reports coming from the country “deeply disturbing”. “New Zealand supports the right of the Libyan people to peacefully protest and seek greater democratic freedoms,” Foreign Minister Murray McCully said.
“We are receiving reports of the military using heavy weapons and aerial bombardment against protesters. “This is deeply disturbing and unacceptable. We call on the government to refrain immediately from the excessive use of force.” Demonstrators are calling for an end to strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s four-decade rule, but the regime has vowed to crush the revolt.
Hundreds of people are believed to have died in the clashes.