Gadhafi defiant as defectors call for regime's overthrow

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 22, 2011 

TOBRUK, Libya — Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, vowing to "die as a martyr," exhorted loyalists Tuesday to help him crush a rebellion even as top-level defections splintered the regime. New atrocity allegations emerged, including an effort to bury alive scores of protesters and soldiers who refused to shoot civilians.

Libya's interior minister, top military officers and senior diplomats joined a growing chorus of former officials calling for Gadhafi's overthrow over what residents described as wholesale shootings of protesters and bystanders in the capital, Tripoli, by security forces and mercenaries backed by tanks and aircraft.

"I hereby announce that I have abandoned all my duties to respond to the February 17 revolution," Interior Minister Abdel Fattah Younes al Abidi declared in an interview with Al Jazeera. "I urge the Libyan army to . . . serve the people and support the February 17 revolution."

The seventh day of the insurrection against the Middle East's longest ruling dictator was fraught with confusion and rumors. Communications to the outside world remained restricted to incoming calls, and Internet service was intermittent.

Residents in the eastern city of Benghazi, and a drive by a McClatchy correspondent from the Egyptian border to the port city of Tobruk, indicated that all of Libya's eastern wing along the Gulf of Sidra was controlled by tribal leaders, armed citizens and police and troops in revolt against the regime.

Hundreds of people are believed to have died and thousands injured in the insurrection, by far the most violent of the uprisings ignited in the oil-rich region by the December self-immolation of a jobless Tunisian man that ousted the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt. The revolts also have inspired protests against the rulers of Bahrain, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Morocco and Algeria, mostly by young people demanding democratic reforms and an end to corruption, unemployment and poverty.

Gadhafi made it clear that he's not yielding his 42-year grip on power, gesturing wildly and glaring angrily in a podium-pounding speech in which he declared, "I am a fighter, a revolutionary from the tents . . . I will die a martyr at the end."

The 68-year-old leader, swathed in a brown robe and brown headdress, delivered the tirade over state-run television from the entrance of his ruined residence that was struck by U.S. airstrikes in 1986 and left unrepaired as a monument of defiance to the U.S. He blamed the uprising on misguided young people who were provided drugs and cash by a "small, sick group" of "bearded men" — an apparent reference to Muslim extremists — and Libyan exiles.

"You men and women who love Gadhafi . . . get out of your homes and fill the streets," he raged, calling for the formation of local defense committees. "The police cordons will be lifted. Go out and fight them."

"Forward, forward, forward," he concluded before being kissed by a gaggle of supporters.

Several minutes later, hundreds of regime loyalists gathered in Tripoli's Green Square shouting, "Long live Gadhafi, long live the revolution," and loosing fusillades of gunfire into the night sky, said several residents reached by telephone.

But the defections of Younes and senior military officers and diplomats, including the Libyan ambassador to the U.S., appeared to leave Gadhafi increasingly isolated. The U.N. Security Council demanded an "immediate end to the violence" and condemned the use of force against civilians. The 22-member Arab League suspended Libya's participation.

In Washington, a U.S. official tracking the crisis said that it was "clear that the regime is fracturing." But it remained to be seen if Libya was moving toward civil war or whether Gadhafi would prevail, be overthrown or be forced to flee the country, said the official, who requested anonymity to discuss the situation.

Governments around the world scurried to arrange planes and ferries to evacuate tens of thousands of their citizens, many of them workers in the country's oil fields, including an estimated 600 U.S. citizens and several thousand dual nationals.

The State Department said late Tuesday that it had chartered a ferry for U.S. citizens wanting to leave Libya that would depart from Tripoli on Wednesday to the islands of Malta, across the Mediterranean Sea.

In Tobruk, Maj. Gen. Suleiman Mahmoud, who defected Sunday from his post as the commander of the local army garrison, said he didn't join the uprising until his family in Benghazi on Sunday saw teenage protesters killed by pro-Gadhafi forces before they left the city.

"I decided to withdraw from the revolutionary army and join the people. I went to the people in the square. There was no microphone, but there was a mosque. We took off our shoes and I congratulated the people of Benghazi," he recounted. "My destiny is to be with the people, even if it means dying with the people."

If Ghadafi "could catch me, he'd hang me or shoot me," he continued.

Mahmoud urged the U.S. and other powers to support the uprising and not to allow their interests in Libya's petroleum reserves, Africa's largest, to keep them sidelined.

In Benghazi, locals scrambled to free dozens of prisoners who were trapped in an underground bunker inside the Katiba El Fadil Bu Omar, a massive security complex where one of Gadhafi's residences is located, said several residents including Jabril Hewadi, the chief radiologist of the Al Jala Hospital, and two members of a committee that's taken power in the city.

The prisoners comprised troops who refused to fire on protesters and were thrown into the bunker along with detained demonstrators by security forces and mercenaries loyal to Gadhafi, they said.

Before abandoning Benghazi Sunday, the security forces poured concrete against the doors to the bunker — part of an extensive underground tunnel network — in an apparent attempt to bury them alive, said Hewadi and Muftah, a resident who studied journalism in South Carolina and asked that his last name be withheld. They spoke to McClatchy in separate phone interviews.

The prisoners would have died had their cries for help not been heard by locals who were exploring the complex, they said, adding that heavy construction equipment was brought in to dig them out.

About 80 of the men had been rescued by Tuesday night, but dozens of others remained trapped, said a member of the citizens' committee who declined to give his name.

A Tripoli resident said that the capital was mostly quiet throughout the day, with residents remaining in their homes, terrified by the rampages the evening before in which security forces and mercenaries indiscriminately shot at protesters and bystanders.

The toll couldn't be accurately ascertained, but New York-based group Human Rights Watch quoted sources at two hospitals as saying at least 62 had been killed in the capital since Sunday.

Unrest was continuing, the resident said, in the outskirts of the city of 2 million, where helicopters strafed anti-government crowds on Monday night to prevent them from reaching the downtown.

"I was able to leave the house to try to find food for my family," said one man, who asked to remain unidentified for security reasons. "We are running out of drinking water and food for the kids. I was able to find some food, but there is a shortage and prices have doubled."

In Benghazi, the starting place of the revolt, senior officers from the Sathi Tohami Air Force Base declared their support for the opposition in front of the main courthouse, said Muftah, the resident.

The base commander announced that his jetfighters would protect the airspace from attacks by pilots loyal to Gadhafi, Muftah said.

A local army artillery base commander also defected, added Muftah.

Hewadi estimated that his hospital and two other trauma centers had received more than 3,000 casualties, including more than 200 dead, most of whom were shot by pro-Gadhafi forces before they fled Benghazi.

"You can't imagine the type of injuries they have. The bullet in the head and the body and the heart and the chest and the legs," said Hewadi, his voice quivering. "Most of the injuries are in the upper part of the body, and most of them are between 18 years to 22."

"Aahhhh," he moaned. "It's a tragedy, you know. I have six childs. I love my childs. And these people are like my childs," he continued. "They are so young. It's terrible. The situation is terrible."

Residents have rounded up more than 30 African mercenaries, he said, adding that many were badly beaten and were being treated in a special hospital set up at the municipal courthouse.

The hospital's ability to care for its patients was being strained by an exodus of foreign nurses.

"The Filipino nurses, the French nurses, they arranged themselves to go out," Hewadi said. "No nurses, no teams. We need the Red Cross to come to us, to help us. We need help, medical help."

Another doctor, who declined to use his name, took Hewadi's cell phone and yelled, "You have to help this country! Where are the Human Rights Watch? Where are them! They must help us. You have to help us. Where is the world? Where is the United Nations? You have to do something for these people!"

(Allam reported from Tobruk, Libya; Landay and Talev reported from Washington. Warren P. Strobel and Greg Gordon contributed from Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Miret El Naggar contributed from Cairo. Special correspondents Jinan Hussein and Laith Hammoudi also contributed.)

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