Qaddafi’s Grip Falters as His Forces Take On Protesters

Posted on February 22, 2011

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http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/23/world/africa/23libya.html

The New York Times

A conference hall in Tripoli, Libya, was among the government buildings still smoldering in the capital on Monday.

By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and SHARON OTTERMAN
Published: February 22, 2011

CAIRO — Libya appeared to slip further from the grip of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi on Tuesday, as opposition forces in eastern Libya moved to consolidate control of the region, arming themselves with weapons taken from security warehouses, and fighting continued in Tripoli, witnesses said.

Alaguri/Associated Press

A resident holding a pre-Qaddafi-era national flag stood on a tank inside a security forces compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Monday.

In Tripoli, the capital, the government was striking back at protesters challenging Colonel Qaddafi’s 40-year rule. Security forces and militiamen backed by helicopters and warplanes besieged parts of the city overnight, according to witnesses and news reports from Tripoli.

Fighting was heavy at times overnight, witnesses said, and the streets were thick with special forces loyal to Colonel Qaddafi fighting alongside mercenaries. Roving the streets in trucks, they shot freely as planes dropped what witnesses described as “small bombs” and helicopters fired on protesters.

Hundreds of Qaddafi supporters took over the central Green Square in the capital after truckloads of militiamen arrived and opened fire on protesters, scattering them. Residents said they now feared to leave their houses.

“It was an obscene amount of gunfire,” said one witness. “They were strafing these people. People were running in every direction.”

Colonel Qaddafi, whose whereabouts have been unknown, appeared for roughly 30 seconds on state television at 2 a.m. on Tuesday to signal his defiance and deny rumors he had left the country. “I want to show that I’m in Tripoli and not in Venezuela,” he said, holding a large white umbrella while getting into a vehicle.

“I wanted to say something to the youths at Green Square and stay up late with them but it started raining,” he said, referring to his supporters. “Thank God, it’s a good thing.”

With the Internet largely blocked, telephone service interrupted, and access to international journalists constrained, information remained limited. There were conflicting reports about the situation late Tuesday morning in Tripoli, with some witnesses reporting ongoing gunfire and renewed strafing by warplanes, and others saying the streets were momentarily quiet and being cleaned of debris from the night’s violence.

With pro-government security forces either absent or defecting to join the opposition in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and the center of the week-long rebellion, citizens armed with guns organized into informal security committees, a resident reached by telephone said. Supermarkets and warehouses were open, as were local hospitals, caring for hundreds of people wounded during the government crackdown of the weekend, before defections to the people from the military brought a lull in the violence.

“There is collaboration between people like never before,” said Mohammed Abdul Rahman el Mahrek, 42, who has been living in the city for 15 years and said he supported the rebellion. The warehouses of security forces loyal to the government had been looted by the people with the help of the army, he said. “It is quiet,” he said, “but it is like the quiet before the storm.”

Two warplanes, he said, landed at the Benghazi airport on Monday, apparently after refusing to fire against protesters. The Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, said in Cairo on Tuesday that the runways there had since been destroyed. He gave no details, however.

Large areas of eastern Libya along the Mediterranean coast also appeared to be under the opposition’s control, said Ben Wedeman, a CNN correspondent who entered the region late Monday. Citizens with guns were everywhere, he reported, the streets were quiet, and the Libyan security forces at the border of Egypt had largely evaporated.

The border with Tunis in the western part of the country, however, was reinforced by Libyan security. People fleeing the country said they had their money and telephones confiscated, and were left “only with their clothes,” an Al Jazeera correspondent, Nazanine Moshiri, reported from the scene.

The extent of the casualties remained unknown. Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that it was struggling to confirm the number of people killed in the uprising, saying it had confirmed 233 deaths, most in Benghazi. Another international group estimated that that at least 500 people had died.

International condemnation of the violence continued to build. “Now is the time to stop this unacceptable bloodshed,” said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in a statement. Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, said Monday he had spoken to Colonel Qaddafi and urged him to immediately halt attacks on protesters.

Reporting was contributed by Mona El-Naggar , Neil MacFarquhar and Kareem Fahim from Cairo; Nada Bakri from Beirut, Lebanon; and Colin Moynihan from New York.

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