WASHINGTON— A broken Libya — one half free, the other braced for the final fury of a dying regime — teetered in limbo Wednesday, with the ever-defiant Moammar Gadhafi threatening the worst.
Amid rising global outrage, a brittle calm settled over much of the country after a week of bloody clashes.
But the scenes from Libya told a tale of two countries, with celebrations in the liberated eastern city of Benghazi contrasting starkly with the tense streets of Tripoli, where armed gangs loyal to Gadhafi roamed freely.
With the revolt at an apparent standoff and despite more high-profile defections Tuesday in the wake of a violent government crackdown, Gadhafi vowed in a televised speech to cling to power with “the last drop of blood.”
The erratic 69-year-old leader lashed out at enemies far and wide, accusing the United States, Britain, Italy of secretly bankrolling the drug-addled “rats and mercenaries” of the uprising. He pledged to “cleanse Libya house by house” or “die here as martyr” trying.
But Gadhafi’s defiance appeared only to galvanize the uprising, with more senior Libyan diplomats, police and military officials peeling away to join the opposition.
Among the defectors was Interior Minister Abdel Fattah Younis, a senior military commander who participated in the 1969 coup that thrust Gadhafi to power.
“(Gadhafi) won’t leave, he will stay to the end, but he will stay alone,” Younis told Al Jazeera TV. “Our plan now is to support the youth of Tripoli so that it is liberated like Benghazi was.”
As oil prices spiked and stocks tumbled, pressure mounted on world governments to answer the crisis with more than rhetoric. But despite a UN Security Council Resolution calling for an immediate end to violence, the only concrete measures appeared to be a scramble to evacuate foreign nationals trapped within what yet could become all-out civil war.
In Ottawa, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon confirmed plans to begin evacuating the estimated 500 Canadians on Thursday.
“It’s outrageous to see a country using military force or might as it has against its own citizens that are protesting, that are seeking better ways and reforms,” Cannon said.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated U.S. objections to the Libyan crackdown, but her remarks left many calling for a stronger response.
President Barack Obama has yet to comment on the deepening chaos in Libya. But Sen. John Kerry, chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, called for the immediate restoration of biting sanctions as part of a range of measures to signal zero tolerance for the perpetrators of continuing violence.
“World leaders must together put Col. Gadhafi on notice that his cowardly actions will have consequences,” said Kerry.
Despite a communications blackout draped over much of the territory still under Gadhafi’s control, many Libyans trapped inside were nevertheless able to signal frustration, anger and fear over what happens next.
One protester named Khaleed, speaking by cellphone from Tripoli, decried the lack of outside support, saying: “We’re dying here. We don’t want to hear you talk about what a bad person (Gadhafi) is. We’ve known that for 42 years. . . . What Libya needs now is intervention.”
The scene in Benghazi was instead celebratory. Residents at one public square showered a large-screen television with shoes upon hearing Gadhafi’s speech. Banks and schools were expected to reopen in coming days in another sign of a new era taking hold.
Yet the brooding images from Tripoli continued to make their way to online, with new video and photos underscoring scenes of death and destruction from recent days.
Among the most distressing messages were continuing reports of African mercenaries flown in to buttress the fragmented Libyan security forces. One defecting pilot said the air carrier Afriqiyah was engaged in transportation “hundreds” of hired guns to the protest hotspots.
But desertions have reportedly stripped Gadhafi of control of the majority of Libya’s 45,000-strong standing army, leaving the regime with a hard kernel of barely 5,000 elite troops, including the 32nd Brigade commanded by Gadhafi’s second youngest son, Khamis.
With the whole of eastern Libya now under the control of tribal leaders, armed citizens, police and troops united against the regime, the actual extent of Gadhafi’s reach behind Tripoli remained unclear. Conflicting reports of sporadic clashes in smaller western towns suggested the regime’s territory was shrinking fast.
But analysts remain reluctant to broadly project the political dynamics of a post-Gadhafi era, citing the complexities of tribal and regional differences.
“Were Gadhafi to fall in, say, the next week, which is plausible, you would need some kind of a provisional government,” said former White House official Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council On Foreign Relations.
“The danger is you get have two or three provision governments, one in Benghazi, one in Tripoli and another beyond.”