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Libya: Protesters take control of cities

February 22, 2011 00:12 IST

Libya's anti-government protesters took control of several cities in the north African country and reached capital Tripoli for the first time amid reports that its leader Muammar Gaddafi has fled the country.

A growing number of four-decade-old Gaddafi regime figures have defected, as the government crackdown on the protesters intensified with state TV reporting that Libyan security forces launching operation against what it called"dens of terrorists." There were also reports that some miltiary aircraft fired at the protesters in Tripoli from the air. All landless and wireless communications in the oil-rich north African country were also reported to have been cut.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 223 people have been killed in five days of violence but some other international rights groups said there could be up to 400 dead in the unrest. As calls from around the world grew loud for restraint, 68-year-old Gaddafi's son pledged to fight the revolt to the "last man standing", warning protesters that Libya was neither Tunisia nor Egypt.

"We will keep fighting until the last man standing, even to the last woman standing ... we will not leave Libya to the Italians or the Turks," Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said. As people in the capital joined protests for the first time after days of violent unrest in the eastern city of Benghazi, he appeared on television and said that the regime will not back out even to the last bullet.

As the crackdown intensified, Libya's justice minister Mustapha Abdeljalil resigned in protest to "the excessive use of force" while a senior Libyan diplomat in China and Libya's Ambassador to India also quit in protest.

Libyan diplomats in the UN accused the regime of committing genocide. Libya's senior diplomat in China Hessein Sadiq al Musrati, who stepped down and called on all diplomatic staff to resign, also said that Gaddafi "may have left Libya". British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Gaddafi may be heading to Venezuela, citing "information that suggests he is on his way." Venezuela however denied that Gaddafi was on his way to the south American nation with government sources quoted as having said "no contact" has been made with him or his administration.

Anti-government protesters took to the streets of Tripoli, in a revolt that started from Benghazi, where Gaddafi's grip has traditionally been weaker. Al Jazeera reported that tribal leaders too spoke out against Gaddafi, while some army units defected to opposition. Protesters appeared to be largely in control in the coastal city of Benghazi, where government buildings were set ablaze after security forces were forced to retreat.

Rania in Cairo
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